Fighting osteoarthritis since age 19
The average age of someone with osteoarthritis is around 65. Marsha was diagnosed at 19.
Now in her early 50's, Marsha still struggles with her condition. On bad days, it can be difficult just to walk or stand. On good days, she has minimal pain and gets to enjoy spending time with her family and friends.
The symptoms started at age 17, but Marsha’s doctors were reluctant to believe that arthritis could be the cause of her joint pain. “It took two years for them to diagnose me. I had been through trauma as a kid, and they thought it might be related.” After seeing multiple specialists, Marsha was diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
“I really struggled with the diagnosis because I was so young. It was life affecting. If I had it in one place, it would spread throughout my body over the years,” she says. “It was a life changing moment because I knew I would always have to live with it, and it wouldn’t be easy.”
As time progressed, the arthritis spread. In 1996, when Marsha was in her early 20's, she had knee replacement surgery on her right leg. Unfortunately, her surgery revealed over 300 blood clots. In order to go on the blood thinner Coumadin, she had to stop taking her arthritis medication.
As an accomplished 3D artist focusing on sculpture, clay and welding, Marsha’s work requires the extensive use of her hands. While exercise has helped her adjust to the pain in her joints, it is increasingly difficult for her to do what she loves. Her osteoarthritis recently spread into her chest wall, forcing her to give up sculpture and throwing pottery. “My hands, my arms and my shoulder hurt so bad that they wouldn’t function. I haven’t been in my studio for over 8 months.”
Marsha is also a mother of eight and often misses out on family fun that requires physical activity. “The kids have all learned to work around mom. Activities and family gatherings are planned around me. It’s not fair, but it has to be that way. My arthritis doesn’t just consume my life, but it consumes my whole family’s life.”
One thing that does help Marsha is exercise, and she has made it a part of her weekly routine. “The primary exercises that helped me were stretching and swimming. This is the biggest key to keep the arthritis from settling. When I’m in the water, it doesn’t hurt. I move my body and I don’t feel pain,” she says.
The pressure from the water keeps her muscles active while reducing the pain of movement. “It’s very freeing in all honesty. I walk in the pool thinking, ‘I don’t hurt!’ If I could live in a bubble of water, it would be great,” she laughs.
While exercise is often helpful to ease the pain in her joints, Marsha still cannot physically participate in many of the activities that she used to. “There are a lot of things that I can’t do because I can’t physically walk there. My legs and my feet hurt too much. The kids want to do different activities that are active and I can’t go, especially if the weather is bad. I want to spend that time with them, but physically it isn’t possible.”
Marsha schedules her activities around the weather. “It’s hard because when the humidity rises, when it’s damp or if the weather changes, I hurt worse. I watch the weather very closely, and schedule around it so that I know if I will be able to walk. If the weather is bad, I can’t move. It hurts just to stand some days.”
Many people who have not experienced arthritis first-hand or through a loved one do not understand the limitations the condition can have on someone’s daily life. “People need to understand that those struggling with arthritis are hurting whether we show it or not. So many people don’t understand that it’s as trying as it is. My older kids grew up with it. As they have gotten older, it’s gotten worse. My younger kids don’t understand why I’m not as active. They feel cheated by my condition. I try to make up for it in other ways with them. It really just robs the whole family.”
Despite her struggle, Marsha keeps going and has increased her swimming exercises to five times a week. Through exercising and eating right, she hopes to slow the process. “I just keep going. I have to keep going. If you let it, it will defeat you. I know what the future holds and it won’t be good, but I have to make the best of it and not let it get me down. I dread when I’m in a wheelchair. I don’t want to know how it will feel, but I keep moving forward and praying to God for strength. It’s all I can do.”
By Ashley Spencer, Writer’s Ink