From Ankle Braces to Hiking Boots: How I went from Fighting Osteoarthritis to Planning My 110 Mile Dream Hike

January 15, 2014. Sitting on the examination table I scan the room. There is a replica of a skeleton in the corner and pictures of the human body showing the skeletal structure, tendons and muscles, and various joints hang on the walls. The paper between me and the table crinkles every time I move.

On the desk is a model of the ankle, one of those where you can see how all the bones and tendons fit worked together. The model is broken.

ankle model

I think that’s a sign of things to come.

I walk out of the office in what is my first of 4 ankle braces, and 1 cast, I’ll wear in 2014.

Why 4 ankle braces you ask?

The osteoarthritis in my right ankle decided it wanted to make itself be heard…and felt.

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Perception vs. Reality: I Lied about Not Having Osteoarthritis

The other week I was in Wisconsin to visit family and friends. On the way back to San Francisco, I had some time to kill before my flight so I decided to walk around the terminal at O’Hare Airport in Chicago to stretch out and do a little people watching. O’Hare is a busy airport so you see all types of people heading in every direction. From businessmen in suits to vacationers in jean shorts and everything in between. If you wait long enough, you’ll see a wide range of travelers.

Travelers at airport

Lief Maxfield via flickr

After about 25 minutes of walking around, I stood off to the side and leaned up against a wall when a lady approached me. I instantly recognized her from my walk through the terminal becuase around her neck was a large, bright red neck pillow.

She approached me with a quizzical look on her face and asked, “What is that in the side pocket of your backpack?”

“This?” I asked as I grabbed my trekking pole from the side pocket? “It’s my backpacking trekking pole. I use it to help keep my balance when I’m fly fishing in streams.”

walking support for osteoarthritis

I had one of these trekking poles in my backpack.

“Oh great!” she said with a relief. “When I saw that I was thinking ‘He’s way too young and athletic looking to need that as a walking aid.’ So I’m happy to hear that’s what it is for and that you don’t need it for support.”  

“Yeah, nothing like that. It provides a little extra support when I’m walking over rocks and uneven riverbeds” I chuckled.

Yes, I did lie to her, but it was only a little lie since what I told her was also part truthful. I do use the trekking pole for balance with I’m fly fishing. But when I travel I also bring it along to use for support if my ankle gets too tired.

I lied because I didn’t want to get into talking about my osteoarthritis.

Even though I don’t mind letting people know about my osteoarthritis, there are times when I just don’t want to talk about it. At that time, I was relaxed and enjoying the moment. Having to explain that I need the trekking pole for support because my ankle is an arthritic mess would have brought my mood down. And selfishly, I didn’t want that. And I’m perfectly OK with that decision.

I don’t want to lie about or cover-up my osteoarthritis. In fact, when people ask about my condition I’m usually more than happy to explain what’s going on. I hope that discussion changes the person’s perception that young adults do suffer from osteoarthritis, regardless of how we look. But being able to pick and choose when and how much I talk about my osteoarthritis is a way of dealing with the emotional rollercoaster it creates.

When you’re in a similar situation, how will you react?

  1. Talk with the person openly about your osteoarthritis
  2. Change the subject
  3. Just let the other person know that you’re not up for talking about it right now

Whatever your decision, the important thing is to be honest with yourself. There will always be the perception that young adults don’t suffer from osteoarthritis. But the reality is, and it’s our reality, that there are a lot of us who have to face the daily struggles our osteoarthritis presents. How we deal with our reality, in a way that’s best for us, ultimately is what allows us to successfully manage our osteoarthritis and live the type of life we want to live.

What to Expect When You’ve Been Diagnosed with Arthritis

anxiety from arthritis

Sliding through a dark tunnel, this is what it feels like after being diagnosed (courtesy of Youtube)

“I’m 28. WAAAYYY too young for arthritis. This is something old people have to worry about.”

“This can’t happen to me, I’m still active and have BIG PLANS for my future.”

“Doctor. You have to be joking.”

“This isn’t funny anymore. Seriously…how do you make this go away?”

Those and tons of other questions stormed through my mind once I was diagnosed with arthritis. I still repeat the last one from time to time.

There’s the initial shock of being diagnosed with arthritis. Thinking that you’re too young and healthy for something like this to happen. Then, slowly, it’s the realization that you have no idea what to expect now that you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis. So you take to Google, maybe Reddit, Inspire.com or one of the other sites that talk about arthritis, to find out everything you can about that lies ahead. You’ll read a lot about so called treatments and cure, providing false hope. And even though it is the internet, you’ve find a lot of helpful people who are in your shoes that are more than happy to offer up some advice or a few kind words.

There’s a lot to digest and you’ll probably feel overwhelmed at times. Eventually you’ll start seeing the same ideas over and over and you’ll begin to have a better grip on your arthritis. I found a lot of helpful information out there, but a few pieces were missing, so here are a few additional things to expect when you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis that you might not come across or even think about.

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