One Patient’s Journey: Living with Osteoarthritis

After years of ineffective steroid injections, Beth found that warm yoga and long walks worked best for controlling her osteoarthritic joint pain.

For years, Beth Kernan had lived with pain in her spine. “I didn’t get any treatment and the pain eventually went into my leg and caused sciatica,” she recalls. “This went on for about 5 years and then 10 years ago, my doctor ordered an MRI. I learned that I had osteoarthritis in my back.”

Beth's husband, John, developed rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 39 and has had three hip replacements as well as shoulder and wrist surgeries. So when Beth learned that she had osteoarthritis, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Typically, osteoarthritis shows up in the hands, knees, hips, lower back, and neck. While the painful joint disease can happen at any age, it most commonly begins in the 50s and affects more women than men. (Image: IStock: P Khunatorn)

Osteoarthritis – A Quick Recap 

Osteoarthritis (OA), sometimes called wear-and-tear arthritis, is the most common form of arthritis and can occur in any joint. Typically, it shows up in the hands, knees, hips, lower back, and neck. While it can happen at any age, it most commonly begins in the 50s and affects more women than men.

Joints become swollen, painful, and hard to move as the smooth cushion between the bones that is known as cartilage breaks down.1 (Lyme disease arthritis is a thing too, read about it.)

Simply “Living With the Pain” Wasn’t Working

Beth tried to just live with her osteoarthritic pain for quite a while, but after the MRI diagnosis, her doctor sent her to a physical therapist for six weeks, and this worked temporarily but the pain came back. A pain clinic was the next option.

“My pain had never been so debilitating that it kept me from going about my day to day routine,” Beth remembers. “But I had started to turn down what I called 'trigger events,' like going to a cocktail party or a conference where I would be standing for hours.” (Before her retirement, Beth was a senior director at a banking firm. After leaving that job, she did some nonprofit consulting.)

Trialing Steroid Injections

She went to the pain clinic and received a cortisone injection directly into the lumbar area of her spine. That injection brought relief that lasted for nearly a year, at which time she got a second injection. “That time, it only lasted for six months,” she recalls. “After a total of four injections, they told me that the next step was to burn a nerve. I sure wasn’t sure I was ready for that.”

When the injections stopped working entirely about 3 years ago,  Beth tried a non-pharmaceutical approach that’s actually been very helpful: yoga. Now, this mom of three leads a very active life, walking in her neighborhood and taking advantage of the many cultural events in Atlanta, Georgia, which is just a 20-minute drive from her home.

Beth Kernan lived with pain in her spine for 5 years before learning it was osteoarthritis.

Finding Yoga, Finding Function

Research shows that yoga can not only relieve stress, improve mental and emotional health as well as balance and sleep, but it can also help to relieve low back pain and neck pain.2

“I began to practice warm yin yoga,” Beth says. “Just as you would do with other yoga, you bring in your mat and your straps and your bolster. The room temperature is warm. For most of the exercises you are either sitting or kneeling, or closer to the floor. You are not doing poses where you are standing up like a tree pose.”

She says that the exercises relax her back.

 “Yoga is a stress reliever and has been wonderful,” Beth says. “It is not as tough as regular yoga and you spend a fair amount of time in each position. Each session is about an hour and you start off with relaxing and breathing, then there are about 50 minutes of different poses, and at the end, there is the breathing and relaxation.”

Beth says that she most enjoys the mindfulness that comes with yoga. “You are taught to think about healing,” she says. “In the class, the instructor focuses on a particular area of the body that you want to improve. I find that very helpful.”

Besides a weekly hour-long yoga class, she also began to eat a more healthy diet. Other than an occasional ibuprofen tablet, she doesn’t take any medications for her osteoarthritis.

In fact, over the past few years, Beth has begun to walk about 25 miles a week. With her children grown, she and her husband moved into a townhouse closer to Atlanta so they could get into the city more easily. “I try to go out every morning and get some exercise,” she says. “I have learned from my husband that it’s important to stay active. The worst thing is to just sit there. You need to take back your life or else the pain takes it over for you.”

The Occasional Pain Flare

Despite all her efforts, the pain does sometimes flare up. “I never know when this will happen,” she says. “If I’m going on a trip and sitting in an airport for a long while, I have pain. But if I can exercise and get in my stretching and walking, this helps.”

Beth is also careful about how long she stands since standing aggravates her back. She loves to volunteer but chooses her activities carefully so she doesn’t have to stand in one place for too long.

“I volunteer at a meal packing organization, Feed My Starving Children, that packs nutritious meals that are shipped to families around the world. I know that I can’t stand on concrete in one spot for a period of time or it will be a problem,” she says. “If I am walking around, it doesn’t hurt. So I just don’t take a volunteer position on a meal assembly line where I would need to stand in one spot for two hours.” More on managing pain flares including through relaxation exercises. 

Her advice to others with osteoarthritis is simple: “Stay active in every way that you can and stay positive. These are the two key elements to feeling good.”

 

Updated on: 08/13/20
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