Osteoarthritis is a condition that I thought only applied to older people. It was the sort of thing people’s grandparents suffered from when they were frail and elderly, wasn’t it? Well, it seems not. I was diagnosed in 2017 with arthritis in my left knee, after suffering nearly 10 years of knee pain. A couple of years later, in my early 50s, I had a partial knee replacement. By that time I had been told I had arthritis in my right knee and both hips, as well as my hands. I am now on the waiting list for an operation on my other knee.
I walk with a stick and I am doing more damage to my hips and left knee whilst I wait for my right knee to be operated on. I am in pain all the time, every minute of every day, chronic pain that stops me doing many of the things I want to do. I can feel the grind and clicking in just about every joint, which leads to pain and inflammation and reduced movement. But it’s a hidden pain, one that few people will notice or understand.
Osteoarthritis hit me when I was 50; it took away my confidence, my ability to walk far, to cycle, even to ride a motorbike. It affects my sleep, as I wake up every couple of hours to turn over, because whichever side I am lying on is so painful I have to move to relieve the pressure. I can’t stand for too long without my knee grinding or giving way, or my feet hurting so much it feels like someone is stabbing them, over and over. I can’t walk far without a lot of pain in my ankles, hips and knees. I can barely cycle as the motion hurts my knees and hips, even sitting can be painful sometimes!
I write this, not to seek sympathy, but to explain what it feels like and to share experiences with others who may suffer similarly. It is only since I started to experience constant, invasive pain that I began to get a glimpse of how much chronic pain must affect people’s lives. It’s not something I had really thought about much before.
In 2019 I was lucky enough to discover the Nuffield Health Joint Pain Programme. It was a six-month programme that focused on both increasing movement and discussion about living with pain. It really helped to be in a group with other people who experience joint pain; to talk to people who were going through some of the same issues. There were shared experiences, chat about issues and problems, and how to deal with different challenges. It also introduced us to gym work, strengthening work essential for improving stability and joint movement, aqua aerobics for cardio work that has less impact on joints, and Pilates for core strength, all really good options for improving mobility and strength.
Sadly, Covid interrupted the programme and I was not able to complete it as we moved away from Bristol, but I’ve taken many of the lessons with me and even kept in touch with some of the people from the group. For me the biggest benefit was definitely being able to talk to people who understood what you were living with and how it impacts on day-to-day living. Doing the exercise and talking to people doesn’t stop the pain but it strengthens both body and mind. It certainly helped me, but the pain is still there and still stops me doing things.
Sometimes I wonder if it is as much a mind thing as it is a body thing. By that I mean I find myself saying no to activities because I imagine I will find it difficult and painful, or I will hold others back because I am slow or can’t do as much. I lack the confidence to go for a walk or to cycle anywhere on my own, in case I fall or it is too painful.. So I leave others to go and do things whilst I sit at home, doing less, which of course doesn’t help.
It is depressing to live in pain and to have to constantly think about whether or not different activities are possible (or indeed worth the likely increased pain I’d experience afterwards). It is depressing imagining things are only going to get worse. It is depressing trying to navigate the medical system to get the best help, particularly now GP appointments take ages to get, waiting lists are years long and dealing with multiple issues appears difficult. But I try not to dwell, I get on with things, hoping for improvements. There are good days and bad days and many in between. But the pain in always there.
I retired early so I could enjoy life, travel to places in the UK and abroad that I’ve always wanted to visit, spend more time gardening, reading and relaxing and doing things I didn’t have time for when I was working. I’ve managed some of those things but in a much more limited way than I hoped.