If you suffer a serious injury to a joint, there’s a good chance that more bad news lies ahead—but you can avoid that if you know what researchers recently discovered about joint injuries.

Not only are joints that have been injured often later reinjured—these joints also face substantially increased risk for painful and potentially debilitating ­osteoarthritis. The new research found, for example, that people with a history of knee injuries are three to six times more likely to develop osteoarthritis in the injured knee than people with no history of knee problems. Osteoarthritis is especially likely if you rush back to your previous level of activity after an injury, short-circuiting the rehabilitation needed to allow the joint to heal fully. The knee is not the only trouble spot—injuries to hips, shoulders and ankles also have been linked to significantly increased risk for osteoarthritis.

Sustaining a serious injury to a joint can destabilize the joint…weaken the muscles surrounding it…and/or alter the way you use the joint during activity, leading to greatly accelerated cartilage wear. That’s why adequate recovery, including a rehabilitation program to strengthen the muscles that support the injured joint, is crucial.

What to do: If you sustain an injury to a joint, ask your doctor about a physical therapy program and then stick with this physical therapy program for its entire recommended duration even if the joint has stopped hurting. 

Ask your doctor or physical therapist what types of exercise are safe for the joint while it still is recovering, prior to returning to unrestricted physical activity.

Finally, if you have suffered a major knee-joint injury, have the joint and surrounding muscles reevaluated by a physical therapist, athletic trainer or sports medicine professional prior to returning to full activity levels and periodically in the years following your injury—even if it feels as good as new. There might be lingering issues such as muscle weakness or altered movement patterns that are too subtle for you to notice but that could increase your risk for osteoarthritis.­

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