I can still hear bones cracking and tendons snapping as if my knee injury occurred mere seconds ago. I can still feel the heat, pain, and adrenaline course through my body as I lay in anguish on the gymnasium floor, my sweat mixed with a sudden realization that I’d no longer be playing college basketball. I can still remember coming out of not one, not two, but seven surgeries to repair a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus plus a fractured tibia, fibula, and knee cap. And I can still hear the disbelief in my voice as I asked my surgeon two years later what exactly he meant when he said I had osteoarthritis. Isn’t arthritis something only older people get? At 22, wasn’t I too young to be at the mercy of persistent aches and discomfort? According to my doctor, no. I wasn’t.
A reported 54 million adults have arthritis, and nearly two-thirds are between the ages of 18 and 64, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis, the most common form, occurs when cartilage between two bones wears down over time. Genetics, obesity, and even joint injuries like mine can put someone at a higher risk for developing the disorder, and stats also show that women are at a higher risk than men.
Despite these facts, most people’s understanding of arthritis is still limited at best. It wasn’t until my own experience that I realized the disorder shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Today, I’m grateful for going even one hour without pain. From the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep, I’m suffering. Due to my sports injury, the connective tissue that used to protect my knee is nearly gone. My bones grind against each other every single day, making standing, sitting, and walking completely miserable. I can’t run anymore, stairs give me anxiety, and certain shoes are either off-limits or too excruciating to wear. It doesn’t help that my pain has also been dismissed by countless medical professionals.
Since moving away from the state in which my original surgeon was based, I’ve been told by primary care physicians that my pain tolerance is just low and the discomfort should be relievable with over-the-counter medications. Studies suggest I’m not alone in having pain symptoms downplayed and left untreated, in one way or another. In an investigation conducted by the University of Maryland, researchers found that although women “report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, they’re nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively.”
Thankfully, I have a supportive partner who not only assists me on a daily basis — whether it’s helping me out of bed, holding my hand as I safely navigate stairs, or simply listening when I need to complain — but who's also willing to speak up for me in doctors' offices. It’s only after my partner tells them, “No, I see her every day. Her pain is real and she needs something stronger,” do I see a real concern and urgency to come up with viable solutions. For now, I’ve settled on taking acetaminophen and keeping ice packs handy for relief. I also endure frequent injections of steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs, which temporarily “lubricate” my injured joint until I find a surgeon willing to perform a knee replacement. Unfortunately, the ones I’ve met with have told me that type of surgery is too risky for someone my age.
Another way I’ve learned to cope is to tether my sense of self to something other than physical activity. Rather than taking a jog around my block, I walk carefully for as long as I can and take breaks when needed. I grimace while sitting on my living room floor to play with my child, but we still have lots of fun under our favorite, haphazardly made forts and during our trips to the park. I’ve picked up yoga and therapeutic swimming sessions, too, both of which keep me optimistic.
Living with chronic pain, I’ve learned that redefining “normal” is essential. I know now that I’m so much more than an injury and more than the grief it has caused. I take pride in reclaiming control, my decision-making power, and some freedom to do whatever I want. Likewise, I’ve pretty much mastered the art of advocating for myself and others — whether it be during a casual conversation with peers or during yet another doctor’s appointment — and I won’t stop until we get the acknowledgement we deserve.