Early Onset Pain and Degenerative Change – And the question is, is to have had and lost…

… better than not having at all?

This is a question that commonly arises in sporting individuals who start suffering with joint pain, earlier than expected, or later on in life. And there is no simple answer…

Playing sport regularly from a young age can lead to earlier degenerative changes in the spine and the peripheral joints. I have seen this in Premier League footballers and top 10 tennis players in their early to mid 20s. And this is not exclusive to the elite athletes I have mentioned. Those, like myself, who play football 2-3 times a week (and tennis on the rare occasions when the sun is out) are also more likely to suffer from early degenerative changes.

An example of this can be seen with a female footballer in her mid 20s. She presented with x-rays showing disc degeneration andspondylolisthesis. Such changes in the body are not usually seen until the late 30s and into the 40s. This could be due to the increased loading and pressures applied to the spine and the discs from regular vigorous activity such as playing sport.

However, such degenerative changes may not always be as a consequence of sport. Anatomical variations from birth can also enhance the possibility of early degenerative changes, regardless of the person’s activities. For example, those developing an increased curvature in the lumbar spine (hyperlordosis) are prone to earlier degenerative changes due to the abnormal loading patterns on the disc and spine, which the body was not designed to cope with.

Not everyone is affected in a similar way though, and not everyone will be symptomatic. And testament to this are football players and other sportsmen and women, who have achieved incredible feats well into their 30s and 40s. Another example that comes to mind is that of Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing to another Olympic gold medal, at the age of 38.

So, to try and answer the original question, would one be better off not participating regularly in vigorous sporting activity? Not really… Activity is always better than no activity, which can itself lead to far worse injury and disease through issues such as obesity. It is also not possible to predict who, if undertaking regular sport, would or would not fall foul of early degenerative changes to their body.

There is so much to be achieved in life, and if you were to ask someone like Muhammad Ali whether he would swap the achievements of his boxing career for better health now, the answer would be an emphatic no. We would all have liked to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee…

If you have any aches or pains, or are unsure whether osteopathy can help, it may be worthwhile coming to see us at Atlas Osteopathy (with clinics in East Finchley and Moorgate, as well as the option of home visits), where we can explain your problems to you, why they occur and whether or not you are suitable for osteopathic treatment. Often this can be done via email or on the phone.