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Why does osteoarthritis happen in younger people?

Written by: Mr Charles Willis-Owen
Edited by: Cal Murphy

Osteoarthritis is often thought of as a disease of ageing. However, younger people can also be struck by this degenerative joint condition. Expert orthopaedic surgeon Mr Charles Willis-Owen explains.

Legs of young person with osteoarthritis

How common is osteoarthritis in younger people? How early can the first symptoms appear?

Osteoarthritis is rare under 40 years old and rarely requires surgery in the under-50s, but there are a few factors worth knowing about related to ‘premature osteoarthritis’. It is also important to know that inflammatory arthritis is different and can affect the young more commonly.

When we are talking about osteoarthritis, we usually mean the wearing out of the slippery, shiny, bearing surface of the joint – the articular cartilage – leaving bare bone rubbing on bare bone. This then causes inflammation with pain, stiffness and, later, deformity. Think of it like the tread on a car tyre wearing out until finally the tyre is bald and needs to be replaced.


What kind of sports can lead to osteoarthritis?

Any sport that causes an injury to the joint can bring on early arthritis. This injury may be in the form of a heavy blow to the articular cartilage in the joint, causing it to die and peel off the bone; it may be damage to a ligament that keeps the joint stable, or damage to a cushioning fibrocartilage (such as the meniscus in the knee), meaning that the articular cartilage wears out before its time. 

Common causes of these sorts of things are twisting and collision during sports such as football, rugby, netball and skiing. The impact of running with bad form, or if overweight can do it too.


Is there a genetic factor?

Yes, there is certainly a trend for early-onset arthritis to run in families, and there are a number of genes identified so far that play a part. It is not a simple relationship like colour blindness, but a polygenic mechanism.


Can it be related to your anatomy (e.g. height)?

Anatomical factors within joint shapes do play a role (for example, the ball of the hip joint not being perfectly round, or the kneecap being higher than average). Height per se is not a factor, but weight and body mass index (BMI) certainly are, and being overweight can be disastrous.


Do other lifestyle factors make a difference?

Smoking is bad news for just about everything, including osteoarthritis. Poor sleep is increasingly being investigated too. Poor diet leading to increased weight is not at all helpful.

On the sports issue, I am very much a believer in 'finding your sport'. Not every person is built for every sport, but almost everyone can do something. So if you are super flexible it may be dance, swimming or gymnastics, but if you are tight and springy then sprinting and jumping sports will be better. Finding your sport and enjoying it in moderation is a good way to keep healthy and keep arthritis at bay.


Visit Mr Willis-Owen’s Top Doctors profile to book an appointment.

Mr Charles Willis-Owen

By Mr Charles Willis-Owen
Orthopaedic surgery

Mr Charles Willis-Owen is a leading orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in knee problems, and hip, knee, ankle, and foot sports injuries. From his private clinics in Poole and Bournemouth, Mr Willis-Owen provides the latest techniques and expertise when treating his patients, and offers such treatments as shockwave therapy, injection therapy, and stem cell work. He uses a pioneering single tendon hamstrings technique for ACL reconstruction, which provides faster recovery and a stronger ligament. Mr Willis-Owen is also one of the very few surgeons in the UK providing robotic assisted knee surgery, and also provides custom-made, high-performance knee replacement. 

Mr Willis-Owen is a keen sports person, competing in many sports such as running, rowing, and has represented Great Britain in the Cycling World Championships in 2017, which gives him the advantage that he fully understands the kinds of sports injuries people can have, the impact they can have on sports people, and the importance of becoming fully treated and recuperated as quickly, and effectively as possible to continue practising sports. He treats a wide range of sports people, from current world champions to weekend warriors. 

Alongside his clinical practice, Mr Willis-Owen has written and contributed to numerous peer-reviewed articles in medical journals.

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