Will I have arthritis after my knee injury?

with advice from Mitch Kaye, PT

Unfortunately, if you have a traumatic injury to the knee like an ACL tear, a meniscus tear or even certain types of fractures, your chance of developing osteoarthritis increases significantly.

Osteoarthritis, which is the wearing away of cartilage, can occur normally with years of use, but it can also occur more readily after trauma around the knee. The Arthritis Foundation estimates that 700,000 knee injuries a year account for 12.5% of post-traumatic arthritis cases in the U.S., and they warn that younger athletes with ACL injuries are at risk of developing arthritis before they are 40 years old, often within 10 years of the original injury.

Female in high school or college poses with a basketball while wearing a knee brace.

If you’re an athlete who has had one of these types of injuries, it’s not something you probably wanted to hear.

That said, there are several things that can keep you active and reduce the chance of arthritis developing, or at least slow down the process and road to a joint replacement.

First and foremost, if you have a traumatic injury and have been advised to do physical therapy, complete the full session of PT, recommends Mitch Kaye, PT, quality assurance director for PTPN, Physiquality’s parent company. This can feel like a serious commitment; Mitch advises that full rehabilitation after a knee injury can take up to 6 months. “But if you don’t properly strengthen the muscles around the joint, correct the mechanics, and listen to your body, you’re much more likely to have a second injury or chronic pain in the future,” he notes.

Male physical therapist adjusting the right knee of a patient at a physical therapy clinic.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that those second injuries are another risk factor for developing arthritis, so if you’ve already had knee surgery or a traumatic injury, take steps to prevent further injuries. Be cautious about returning to your chosen sport after surgery or physical therapy; if your physical therapist says to wait, listen to her. Try to cross-train and strengthen the muscles around your joint to protect it. Talk to your PT about your desired activity level and ask for specific exercises to strengthen and protect your knee so you can return to those activities quickly and safely — some strengthening programs have been shown to reduce sports injuries.

On the other hand, avoid becoming sedentary. “Having additional weight on your frame and weak muscles can contribute to developing arthritis,” Mitch says. If you have had to quit your sport of choice due to injury, there are still ways to remain active, even at a lower level. Low-impact exercise like Pilates or yoga can help you maintain flexibility and range of motion while reducing the stress on your joints. Lifting even small amounts of weights can build muscle and strengthen bones. And walking on a regular basis can improve your cardiovascular health.

Family of a mom and dad and two children walking down a hill.

It can be disheartening to know that a sports injury incurred at a young age can make you predisposed to more injury and pain down the line. The key factor is how you respond to the news. If you take the knowledge in stride, and choose to take steps to minimize your chance of further injury and pain, you’ll be stronger and healthier if the arthritis does occur.

Want to find a physical therapist for your injury recovery or arthritis issues? Search for a Physiquality clinic in your neighborhood using our locator below.

Thank you to our contributors:

Mitch Kaye, PT, is the Director of Quality Assurance for PTPN, the parent company of Physiquality. He oversees all aspects of utilization review and case management for the entire PTPN network, and trains and supervises PTPN’s Quality Assurance and Utilization Management staff. In addition, he is responsible for creating and updating case management, utilization management, quality assurance, clinical integration and outcomes guidelines for the network.


Arthritis by the numbers: Book of trusted facts and figures. Arthritis Foundation, 2018.

Kolata, Gina. If you tear a knee ligament, arthritis is likely to follow in 10 years. New York Times, November 6, 2017.

Rehab timeline expectations. Emory Healthcare.

Post-traumatic arthritis: Prevention. Cleveland Clinic, October 22, 2014.

McKinley, Todd, Joseph Borrelli, Jr., Darryl D. D’Lima, Bridgette D. Furman, BS, and Peter V. Giannoudis. Basic science of intraarticular fractures and posttraumatic osteoarthritis. Journal of Orthopedic Trauma, September 2010.

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