Yes, trauma can cause arthritis. However, it's probably more accurate to say trauma is a risk factor for arthritis, because not everyone with trauma gets arthritis and most people with arthritis cannot blame it on an injury.
Any significant injury or repeated trauma that damages bone near the joint or cartilage (the smooth lining of the joint) can lead to arthritis. It may take years for the arthritis to show up, however. For example, a common sports-related injury is torn cartilage in the knee. While this type of injury is often treated with minor surgery that allows a return to action within a number of weeks or months, these athletes are at risk for osteoarthritis (also called degenerative joint disease) years later. Similarly, osteoarthritis is a likely consequence of any fracture in which the break involves the joint. A fracture some distance from the joint is less likely to cause osteoarthritis.
It is harder to know whether more minor, repetitive trauma is the cause of a person's arthritis. Jackhammer operators are said to have an increased risk of developing wrist arthritis but, again, it doesn't seem to affect everyone with that job. What about assembly line workers, cashiers, or even people typing all day on their computers? The role of this sort of repetitive motion in causing arthritis is much less clear.
Finally, the cause of most arthritis is unknown and may well be the result of more than one cause. For example, people with an inherited tendency to develop osteoarthritis may require only minor trauma to develop the disease; another person without a family history of arthritis might be less likely to suffer with the disease despite significant injury.
For those cases in which a cause of arthritis can be found, trauma is the most common culprit. Protecting the joint from trauma by wearing protective gear or, perhaps, through improved conditioning and training may reduce the risk of arthritis.
More than 60 million Americans are living with arthritis, and more than half of those are under 65. In fact, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in Americans older than 15â€”but it doesnâ€™t have to be that way. Arthritis: Keeping your joints healthy is a special health report from Harvard Medical School that describes steps you can take to protect your joints, reduce pain, and improve mobility. The report also explains how arthritis affects the joints and other structures, how kinds of arthritis are diagnosed and treated, and how to minimize the impact of arthritis in your life.