Have you ever heard of "Joe Namath knees"? Joe Namath was the quarterback for the New York Jets for most of his pro football career during the 1960s and 1970s. Later, Namath was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
During his senior year, while playing football for the University of Alabama, Namath had a serious knee injury. Throughout his professional football career as well, he endured many knee injuries and later in life he had knee replacement surgery on both knees. Namath is just one of many football players who faced the same thing. Why does osteoarthritis seem inescapable for so many football players?
Football Injuries Lead to Osteoarthritis
Football players get hit, tackled, and hit hard again. Over the course of years, the high-impact sport takes its toll and osteoarthritis is often the result. It's not too hard to figure out why getting hit in the knee, hip, or any joint is a traumatic injury. Previous joint injury is recognized as a common cause of osteoarthritis. In joints burdened by improper alignment, excessive weight, excessive activity, overuse, or injury, articular cartilage wears away -- and osteoarthritis begins to develop.
The Study: Knee Osteoarthritis in Top Football Players
The prevalence of knee osteoarthritis in a group of 50 former top-level football players was studied. The impact of knee osteoarthritis on joint function and joint structure was also assessed in the group of football players compared to a control group.
- Study participants in the football player group were male, over 45 years old, with no previous history of knee trauma, arthritis, arthropathy or surgery.
- Study participants in the control group were non-sporting males who were otherwise well-matched (in terms of age, weight, height, and dominant foot) to the football group.
The two groups were compared for frequency of knee osteoarthritis, severity of pain and disability, and severity of structural impairment. Initially, it was noted that 40 of the 50 former football players were overweight. Half of the football group had played in more than 200 games. Results of the study showed that knee osteoarthritis, determined by x-ray and clinical examination, was more common in the football players (80%) than nonsporting group (68%). The difference was not considered statistically significant though. Here's what was most interesting:
- Pain was noted in only 6 of the football players, but was observed in 50% of the nonsporting control group.
- Disability was noted in 6 football players and 23 nonsporting participants. Not only was disability more frequent, disability was more intense in the nonsporting group.
- Over 57% of football players showed high levels of damage on x-ray compared to 29% of the nonsporting control group.
Interestingly, researchers concluded that knee osteoarthritis is common in male football players, yet the condition is generally less painful and less disabling than for nonsportsmen -- in spite of being more destructive.
Knee osteoarthritis in 50 former top-level footballers: A comparative study. Ann Readapt Med Phys 2008 Mar 7.
Elleuch MH et al.
Interview With Joe Namath. American Profile. Beverly Keel. 1/23/2005.