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‘Some days it’s debilitating’: When joint pain takes over your life

How to manage your pain

Justin Furman can no longer go for long walks along the beach.

The 30-year-old Toronto man says that during his honeymoon in Zanzibar this past summer, even something as simple as walking would hurt his knees.

“I’ve been dealing with [the pain] for a decade now. My wife is used to [and] sympathetic to the issue at this point,” he told Global News. “It’s frustrating.”

READ MORE: ‘A quiet epidemic’ — Why so many Canadians experience knee pain

Furman, like many Canadians, deals with joint pain, a problem he said started after a series of football injuries years prior.

“I played until I tore my hamstring about three-quarters of the way,” he continued. “Now the pain is predominantly in my right knee… It just feels unstable.”

Causes of joint pain

David Wilson, professor of orthopedics and co-director of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, tells Global News the two common causes of joint pain are injury and arthritis.

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“The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which involves degeneration of the joint tissues like cartilage and bone,” he explained. “People are at higher risk of osteoarthritis if they have injured their joints, are overweight, or have an occupation that puts a lot of repetitive load on the joint.”

About six million Canadians have arthritis — that’s one in every five people — and nearly 60 per cent of people with arthritis are women, according to the Arthritis Society.

“The prevalence of arthritis is on the rise – by 2040, 50 per cent more people will have arthritis,” the organization says. “People with arthritis are more likely to experience anxiety, mood disorders, poor mental health, and difficulty sleeping, compared to those without arthritis.”

Arthritis can be tricky because it can be hard for some to recognize when normal aches and pains of older joints turn into osteoarthritis.

“Osteoarthritis is a slow-moving disease,” Wilson explained. “In the hip, in particular, the symptoms can come and go as well.”

Many people are surprised to be diagnosed with osteoarthritis, especially if they are in their 30s or 40s, he noted.

“However, there are more and more cases of osteoarthritis in these younger age groups,” he said. “A diagnosis of osteoarthritis can make a young person feel old, but it is the first step to coming up with a plan for managing or treating joint pain caused by this disease.”

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Impact on everyday life

Anna Weigt-Bienzle of Toronto was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 22.

She tells Global News almost all of her joints were impacted.

“It’s also a symmetrical disease, so if my right wrist joint is hurting, the left is likely to be affected as well.”

“Some days it’s debilitating and others I hardly notice it. Mornings can be challenging since that’s when I tend to experience the most stiffness in my joints, so I try to wake up a littler earlier to give my body extra time.”

And when you have a condition like rheumatoid arthritis, so much of your everyday life begins to change.

“Having to go to work for the first time with my cane at 26 was a definite hit to my pride,” she continued.

“I’ve had a flare-up on a date where my TMJ [the joint that connects the jaw to the skull] was inflamed and I could hardly open my mouth, which made eating nearly impossible, not to mention an end-of-night kiss.”

Another time, Weigt-Bienzle had a flare-up in her knee during a party in an apartment without an elevator. A friend had to carry her down the stairs.

She says coming to a proper diagnosis took two years.

“I was bounced around between several doctors and given various diagnoses, including lupus, Parkinson’s and MS before they were able to figure out it was rheumatoid arthritis.”

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Besides taking medication, she also practises yoga three times a week to manage the pain.

“I make sure to walk frequently and utilize my standing desk intermittently at work,” she explained. “With joint pain it can be challenging to move at times, but the longer you stay still, the worse it is.”

Getting treatment

Wilson says as soon as you feel any type of pain, talk to your family doctor.

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“They are best equipped to assess the cause of pain, understand your specific health situation and where joint pain fits in, and recommend how to manage it,” he said. “If the pain is from osteoarthritis, there are effective treatment options, including physical therapy, weight loss, medication and joint replacement.”

Furman says he went to see a doctor as soon the pain started. He had several MRIs and was told he had a torn meniscus.

“I was instructed to deal with the pain as long as I could.”

In the meantime, he manages his pain with off-the-counter drugs like Advil and Robaxacet.

“Generally, just have to give the knees a rest every so often,” he said.

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READ MORE: ‘It was like getting my life back’ — New knee replacement protocol helps patients go home sooner

Before you take any type of medication, Wilson says talk to your doctor first.

“If you have osteoarthritis, you will likely have to manage it for years, and a doctor should be part of all decisions on long-term use of any medication,” he said.

“Some prescription medications are designed to reduce the side-effects that become a concern with long-term use of pain medication.”

He adds that people can also discuss natural remedies and supplements with their doctors. Many of the claims made for them are optimistic and unsubstantiated by solid research.

Exercise can also be helpful.

READ MORE: How arthritis sufferers can reduce inflammation through food

“There is a structured osteoarthritis education and exercise program that has been rolled out in five provinces called GLA:D,” Wilson said.

GLA:D has been shown, he adds, to reduce pain and increase physical activity.

“Best of all, exercise doesn’t have the risks of medication and surgery.”

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arti.patel@globalnews.ca