So I was la-de-da-ing my way through my early 50’s when one day the index finger on my right hand started to redden, hurt and swell. I didn’t need a brilliant diagnostician to tell me: I had osteoarthritis. Eventually the pain subsided but I was left with a bony, swollen nodule that was not at all pretty. Awhile later, it attacked the first joint of my middle finger which, to my horror, became not only enlarged but crooked. In time, more fingers were affected, though not all. I am praying for a reprieve for my ring finger so my wedding and engagement rings won’t be permanently incarcerated.
Unfortunately, arthritis affects 27 million adults in the US and is more common in women over 45 than men, 4x more common. Why more women? Loss of estrogen causes bone breakdown to outpace building of new bone. (As I noted to a friend, we seem to lose bone, estrogen, collagen, hair, everything after 50 except our bloody bellies!!) Petite women and overweight women are more at risk. Although the cause of arthritis is unknown, and there is no cure, we do know why it occurs: the cartilage which cushions and protects our joints thins and breaks down with age. (Yet another perk of turning 50!) It is characterized by tenderness and stiffness in a joint, loss of flexibility and range of motion and sometimes is accompanied by a grating sensation or sound. Ouch!
The risk of getting osteoarthritis increases with age, runs in families and can also occur from repetitive use of or injury to a joint. Ha, I can now blame unlocking all those doors as a realtor for the arthritis in my thumb. But more about that later.
The first course of treatment is prescription NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). I tried truckloads of ‘em but some were only affective for a few months and then stopped working. Some upset my stomach. I have had the best success with plain old Aleve, which is readily available and officially known as Naproxen Sodium.
Paradoxically, remaining active is more beneficial that couch surfing. Low impact exercise is best, depending on which joints are affected. Movement helps boost energy, strengthen bones and muscles and helps keep joints flexible.
My initial foray into the world of arthritis was my hands, specifically the first joint of my fingers, the bumps dubbed Heberden’s nodes. If you are affected in the middle joint they are called Bouchard’s nodes. Who knew?? Unfortunately, as things progressed I was affected in my thumb joints and turning a key, opening a can of Diet coke, or a jar of mustard became painful and then impossible.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I submitted to surgery on both thumb joints, one at a time. The surgeon, Dr. Kirk Watson of Glastonbury, CT invented the surgical procedure that gave me back use of my thumbs. As bizarre as it sounds, he harvested a tendon from my forearm (which grew back) and rolled it up and inserted it into the base of the thumb as my new cartilage. Amazing, yes? It was a very painful recovery and a major challenge to use only one hand for 6 weeks at a time. I became very adept at eye makeup with my left hand but blowing my hair dry was impossible. So I got weekly blowouts til I was able to use both hands. My husband is a fabulous dentist but a lousy hair dresser.
Next to go was my back and I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my facet joints in the spinal column. I have thrown everything at it from acupuncture to chiropractic, physical therapy, guided injections and most recently an epidural and injections into the facet joints themselves. I am a work in progress, bent but not broken. And, quite frankly, have learned to live and be active with a degree of pain every day. I’m from the “I’ll try anything” school of medicine.
If you suffer from arthritis, you should be proactive with your food choices as some have been found to aggravate inflammation while others work to lessen it. Case in point is Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid which is heavy on fruits and veggies at the bottom, whole grains, nuts, fish, soy, Asian mushrooms, other lean protein sources, herbs and spices, white and green tea, supplements and finally at the top, my favorite health foods, red wine and dark chocolate! Pull up this pyramid online for details on each of these steps up the ladder of anti-inflammation.
Conversely, the food categories to avoid are:
2. Saturated fats –red meat, full fat dairy
3.Trans fats – donuts, cookies, fried food, processed food
4. Omega 6 fatty acids– most oils other than olive oil, mayonnaise, salad dressings
5. Refined carbohydrates – bread, crackers, white rice, white potatoes
6. MSG (mono-sodium glutamate)- Asian food, soy sauce, prepared soups, deli meats
7. Gluten and casein– dairy, wheat, whey protein
8. Aspartame– sugar substitute in the blue packets and many diet drinks
9. Alcohol-use in moderation
Mostly importantly, read labels so you know what you are putting into your body!
I would add to this that I actively support the Arthritis Foundation in hopes that they will discover better treatment options or even a way to reverse osteoarthritis. And for those of you who have it, I feel your pain!!