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Running With Arthritis: Is it bad for your body?

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

The accusations have been thrown around for many decades; runners are a unique breed.

You are, admit it.

Unlike a lot of other athletes, runners don't have any reservations about telling you what they enjoy doing (running) and how they plan on continuing to run despite any and all bodily injuries that may be going on.

Running is an endurance sport and like all sports/athletic endeavors you’re likely to experience minor injuries. Often these minor injuries are ignored or patched up so that running may continue. It becomes a game of "stroke the symptoms" (treat the symptoms) which often entails massage, cupping, stretching, KT taping, etc. to "splint" a problematic area through a race or PR run without the source every being determined or resolved.

Now to clarify, this flawed treatment style is not just a runner's preference, most clients would prefer that someone work ON them (passive treatment) because it feels good!

Passive treatments are a good method of decreasing symptoms but if the overall treatment plan isn't working towards resolving the SOURCE of symptoms by getting stronger, more flexible, more mobile, etc. (active treatment) you're missing out on the more important, long term results creating stuff.

I think this is where the reputation of “running is bad for your joints” comes from.

  1. Long term games of "stroke the symptoms" take place

  2. Sources and symptoms are never resolved

  3. Pain persists

  4. Let's blame the running!

It's easier to blame the activity rather than identify and explain tissue limitations.

Unfortunately, even in discussions among healthcare providers (who should know better), running is often referred to as a high impact means of shaving life off of your joints.

So is it really that bad?

Short Answer: No. Thanks for reading.

Longer Answer: No*. The asterisk is there because while is NOT inherently bad considerations must be made to do it well and protect your joints at the same time.

Regarding running, a similar question is “Is Exercise A bad for you?” It’s interchangeable with most any type of athletic endeavor.

Is squatting bad for you? No.

Is deadlifting bad for you? No.

You get the point.

What must exist to be an efficient runner is a baseline anatomical and physiologic inventory of:

  • Strength

  • Flexibility

  • Joint Mobility

  • Body Control/Awareness

Not to mention good cardiovascular endurance but we're talking structural considerations right now not engine related considerations.

What tends to cause issues with ANY exercise is when any one of these 4 variables is lacking.

Is running bad for you? Absolutely not.

Is running without a baseline inventory of strength, flexibility, joint mobility and/or body control bad for you? Yep.

And it’s still not the running that’s the bad part. It’s how your body finds paths of least resistance around tissue limitations (Compensatory Motor Patterning). Often these tissue limitations can be improved and in most cases fully resolved with the help of a skilled Physical Therapist.

But back to the running specifics…when an activity is described as “bad”, what they really mean is that it will prematurely degenerate the joints leading to osteoarthritis (OA). A considerable amount of research is being done to determine whether running leads to early OA and the results are interesting. Researchers found that recreational runners had lower incidences of hip and knee arthritis, whereas, sedentary individuals AND elite/competitive runners experienced higher rates.

So while being sedentary OR being an elite level runner may lead to an increased incidence of OA, recreational running may actually be preventive in the development of knee arthritis.

What If I’ve Been Told I Have Knee OA, Won’t That Make It Worse?

Unfortunately, a lot of clients I’ve worked with have been told by Physicians, chiropractors and even other Physical Therapists that they should limit or even stop running to prevent further progression of their knee or hip OA. But fortunately, the research does not support this advice. In a recent study, participants with existing OA who ran were found to have reduced knee pain and no observable degeneration of the joint surfaces. The important take home message regarding this specific piece of research is that the participants were “self-selecting” their run distance, duration and intensity based on symptoms.

If symptoms were high: they'd shorten the distance and/or slow the speed down

If symptoms were low: they'd extend the run distance and/or increase the speed

This self-selection resulted in shorter runs of lower intensity but resulted in preservation of the joint surfaces meaning RUNNING DOES NOT MAKE ARTHRITIS WORSE and running does not need to be discouraged.

*Clinicians take note!* Research supports that running is beneficial to knee health and is even safe for people with arthritis and other degenerative changes in the knees and does NOT advance the condition further.

We work with runners from the Roswell, Alpharetta, East Cobb and Marietta areas and frequently have clients from neighboring states come through our doors who are experiencing a variety of running related aches and pains. We specialize in treating runners and other endurance athletes of all skill levels and enjoy helping people get back to doing the things they love. If you’d like our help in resolving a new or long term injury, ache or pain please call or text us directly, we would love to help. 678-640-4606

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