A Personal Story

For the longest time - a good couple of years - I simply ignored the problem. The little twinges in the joints, the stiffness in the morning and after long hours of sitting in front of my computer, the pain after long periods of physical activity, all seemed too trivial to get worked up about, let alone bother the doctor over. I figured I was simply not getting enough exercise, and blamed it all on that sedentary desk job. Or perhaps this was simply to be expected once one turned forty.

Then a couple of winters in a row, I slipped on ice and badly banged up my knee--the same knee every time. And each time, that left knee took a little longer to recover. And even when I thought it was recovered, sometimes months later, I would injure it again somehow, or sleep on it the wrong way or something, and it would start hurting again, and once more take an unusually long time to heal. Eventually it never really quite healed. It started feeling uncomfortable to painful on a regular basis, and sometimes produced unnervingly crunchy sounds and popping sensations when moved in just the right (or wrong) way.

The joint pain increased. At first it was my knees, then my hips. Sometimes even my shoulder joints ached. Slinging my knapsack or my purse over my shoulders got to be a really iffy thing - sometimes it would feel comfortable, sometimes most definitely not. I began mentioning the joint pain to my physician at the time. She recommended some exercises and the use of cold compresses, which I only sporadically followed up on.

Meanwhile, the pain kept on increasing, and became gradually harder to ignore. I remember one day that was the breaking point. It was a beautiful balmy Saturday, and I decided to take a walk. I didn’t get very far before it felt like my hip joints were burning up. With each step, they got more and more stiff, so that moving each leg forward took more of an effort--and hurt lots more. Eventually I hobbled to a bus stop shelter and sat down on the bench, profoundly shocked and frightened. What in the world was happening to me? This was serious, and scary.

I went back to the doctor with a new-found sense of urgency. "I don’t want to lose the ability to walk!" I cried, "what do I do?" I was less than overwhelmed with the response: take ibuprofen. "But I hear ibuprofen has some side-effects. In the amounts you’re suggesting, won’t it eat a hole in my stomach lining?" I was assured that it wouldn’t, and sent on my way.

At first the large doses of ibuprofen knocked down the pain just fine. But either the pain increased, or the ibuprofen stopped working on me, because eventually I could take a full day’s worth of ibuprofen and never even put a dent in the pain. It wasn’t excruciating pain--I wasn’t doubled over and writhing on the floor or anything. But it was a constant, low-level ache that made it nearly impossible to sit in any position for very long. Its unrelenting presence began to have a really negative effect on my attitude, and I began to get seriously depressed over the prospect of growing restrictions on my goings-about in the world.

Finally, I switched doctors. The new doctor x-rayed my knee and determined that, yes, there were some definite signs of osteoarthritis - a little shadow amongst the tracings of cartilage in my left knee that was probably a bone spur. It actually helped my attitude somewhat to have a confirmed diagnosis - it said no, you’re not being a hypochondriac, there really is something seriously wrong with that joint. The doctor duly packed me off to a specialist, who sent me out in quest of a course in water-aerobics specially geared to arthritis patients (gentle movements, in water so that they’re non-weight-bearing, and that water warm to further soothe the joints).

However, I discovered to my chagrin that all the arthritis water exercises in town were given in the middle of a work day. Obviously they didn’t have enough demand for these classes from people under the age of retirement to schedule them at an hour accessible by a person working 9-to-5 for a living. Discouraged, I hunkered down with my ibuprofen and Aleve and attempted to make do.

The day I bought myself a cane turned out not to be a bummer, but a liberation of sorts. By carrying this object, I was officially declaring to the world as well as myself that I did have a disability. But also, by carrying--or rather, using--that object, I was giving real and tangible aid to my poor embattled knee, not to mention the rest of my body. The cane actually produced results. I could protect my knee from some of the beating it had regularly gotten whenever I clambered onto or off of commuter buses--and I could signal to people that I really needed the handicap seat and would be in a very bad way if I had to stand for an entire hour-long bus trip. I can’t emphasize enough how much this little change helped my particular situation. It also caused some problems of its own, as leaning on the cane could throw my whole body out of whack if I wasn’t careful. But in my case the benefits definitely outweighed the disadvantages, and I’m glad I accepted this tool into my life.

Meanwhile, the ibuprofen and Aleve did finally succeed in causing a minor emergency with my stomach lining. Over a Christmas holiday weekend I had a three-day attack of the most hellish heartburn I’d ever experienced. I got sent for an endoscopy (that’s an admittedly awkward procedure in which a scope is slid down your throat and into your esophagus to look for damage. Thankfully, I was reported free of ulcers, but it turned out that the anti-inflammatories had ironically given me gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), which to my mind is simply another way of saying one had a super-heavy-duty case of heartburn.

Fortunately, a friend told me about some new prescription anti-inflammatories, the so-called COX2 inhibitors, which did not have anywhere near the stomach-irritating potential of their predecessors. I went back to my main physician, and was soon set up with a prescription for celecoxib (Celebrex). It knocked the pain down with a swiftness and decisiveness I hadn’t experienced in months. I’m still taking the stuff. There’s still some discomfort and stiffness, especially the early-morning and after-exertion stiffness. But it’s refreshing, after what’s turned into a couple of years of messing around with this problem, to actually feel so good that I have to watch carefully that I don’t get lulled into overdoing it.

I’m again in a bit of a holding pattern. I’m not getting any worse that I’ve noticed, but I’m not especially getting any better either. The Celebrex and the cane are allowing me to function, though I’m still restricted to a degree I’m not happy with. An hour’s worth of walking all over a supermarket or shopping center will leave me in activity-killing pain all the next day, so I have gotten very matter-of-fact about using the electric scooters many stores now keep on hand for their customers. I’ve recently moved to a place in which I have to own a car again, and so I’m finally applying for my first disabled parking permit. I’m glad these tools are available, but I surely wish I didn’t need to use them.

Dealing with people over my still-sort-of-new disability has been a series of bumps and jolts. Some people, even in this day and age, are remarkably uncooperative--moving only grudgingly when I ask them to give up the "handicapped" seat on the bus to me. Some have been almost too eager to help, leaping to do things for me that I can do fine, while totally spacing out on things I actually need help on. I’ve gotten used to the fact that I just need to be clear about what I need, and not be afraid to ask for it. Thankfully, I’d always been a pretty assertive person. And there are also many fine people out there who are genuinely friendly, helpful, and perceptive about my needs (like volunteering without my asking them to drop me off at the curb while they go off to park the car in the inevitably-remote parking spot).

I’m not sure what’s coming next. I could be doing a heck of a lot more in terms of exercise, though it’s tough to find time for that with my continued busy work schedule. I’ve been taking glucosamine and chondroitin. It’s so hard to tell with these naturopathic remedies when they’re actually working--not because they’re not, but because they tend to sneak in gradually, not unlike the way the disease I’m taking them for sneaked up on me. So I do my best to take them regularly along with my prescription meds, figuring, hey, it couldn’t hurt.

And what if this holding pattern stops holding? I guess it’s time for surgery. Which might not be such a bad thing after all, as the technology of artificial replacement joints has been really leaping ahead in recent years. I’m admittedly nervous about the prospect of going under the scalpel, but I also have to admit that the concept of having brand new shiny smooth-working knee and hip joints is mighty tempting. But … for now I’m still holding. When it’s time to do the next thing, I’ll do the next thing. In the meantime, I’ve got a life to go live.