What would you do if you learned you had a disease that would keep you from doing the things you loved most? No more shopping, golfing, swimming, hiking or playing with your kids or grandkids. What if you physically couldn’t take the stairs anymore or had trouble walking across the parking lot to your car? What would happen if you had to miss work or quit your job because your pain was so intense?
Those are questions asked everyday by people who live with chronic pain from osteoarthritis (OA). OA is the degeneration of joint cartilage and it affects more than 27 million Americans each year. It can be caused by a number of factors including age, weight, overuse and even genetics. According to the OsteoArthritis Centers of America, OA is the most common form of arthritis and it causes severe joint pain and restricted movement, making it difficult to function through even the most routine daily activities.
Many people who suffer from OA feel helpless, discouraged, unhappy, and reliant upon others. Some even endure painful surgeries and long recovery times that don’t always guarantee relief from symptoms.
Phoenix residents Jason, Jane and Eva fought back against their debilitating symptoms and decided that putting up with pain—from OA and surgery—wasn’t an option.
The Professional Athlete
It’s common for athletes to develop osteoarthritis at a much earlier age than most people. They’re constantly exercising, using their joints, experiencing injuries and pushing their bodies to reach full potential.
As a young adult, Former National Football League (NFL) and Arena Football League (AFL) pro, Jason Witczak started suffering from OA. Witczak has been an athlete since he learned how to run and has participated in nearly every sport from cross country to basketball, ultimately building professional careers out of football and golf.
During his football career, Witczak endured multiple sports-related traumas and surgeries that affected his ACL (knee ligament), meniscus (knee disc), and patella (knee cap).
“I didn’t know what good felt like,” says Witczak.
Even though he’d bounced back from previous injuries, Witczak suffered from a career-changing meniscus tear while kicking for the Arizona Rattlers in 2008. The tear ultimately resulted in his placement on the Injured Reserve list and the league suspended his play in 2009. His pain was unyielding and even though he’d undergone numerous surgeries and cortisone injections for previous injuries, the treatments did not lead him to recovery.
“It was even difficult for me to walk sometimes,” Witczack says. “It was hard. I wasn’t ready for my career to end.”
In conjunction with his football career, Witczack also earned a PGA membership, but the OA-induced injury prevented him from qualifying for the REMAX World Long Drive Championship; he had placed 13th in the world during the same golf tournament the previous year. He was forced to accept that traditional treatments and surgeries wouldn’t lead him back into his sports career.
“It was a really dark time,” he says.
But even through his agonizing injury, Witczak’s goals were concrete and he refused to give up. He had to keep fighting.
“The mind doesn’t change,” he says, “your body does. Sometimes you have to reach out for your body to be healthier. Once your body feels better, your mind does, too—and that’s when you can accomplish the things you want to do.”
At that time, a friend led him to the OsteoArthritis Program at Arrowhead Health Centers in Glendale. The program’s curriculum combined physical therapy sessions with injections of a lubricating medication called hyaluronic acid. This particular program administered injections with the aid of a fluoroscope—a state-of-the-art medical imaging tool that ensures each injection is inserted into the knee joint correctly. After completing his first round of the six-week program, Witczak says he felt like a new man.
“The injections I got had me back on my feet quickly,” he says. “They rejuvenated me.”
After a painful 15-month hiatus, he was finally able to return to both of his athletic careers. In 2010, Witczak rejoined the Arizona Rattlers, completing the season with an impressive 93 percent of attempted points after touchdown (PATs). That same year, he advanced his golf career by qualifying for the REMAX World Long Drive Championship for a third time and taking home second place at the Mile High Shootout in Denver the following week.
“You don’t have to be an athlete to do what I’m doing,” says Witczak. “I found a natural treatment that’s not harmful to my body, so it’s worth it. I’m living pain free now.”
The Working Mother
Not all people who experience osteoarthritis pain have physically strenuous careers. Factors like heredity and weight can also play a large role in OA pain. “Weak joints” can be passed down genetically through families and extra body weight can break down knee cartilage, causing severe pain over time.
About 10 years ago, Jane Byrne was raising two teenagers and working as a busy principal when she began feeling acute pain in both of her knees. Several members of her family suffered from chronic OA, so Byrne took action immediately and consulted a knee specialist. Her doctor said invasive surgery or painful cortisone injections were her only hope of finding relief.
“At the time,” says Byrne, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m only in my forties. I shouldn’t need knee replacement surgery already.’”
The cortisone injections worked for a few months, but the pain returned quickly.
“At that point,” she says, “I wrote my pain off to weight and getting older and thought I just had to deal with it.”
Regretfully, Byrne held back from her active lifestyle and tried to mask her OA symptoms with over-the-counter pain relievers. Eventually, the pain became unbearable. She knew she had to find a better solution but still wasn’t ready to accept surgery as her only remaining option.
“I had an entire school to support and a family to take care of,” she says “and I couldn’t take six months off to recover from surgery.”
She went back to her knee specialist. This time, she learned about the OsteoArthritis Program that wasn’t available several years earlier when she first tried to eliminate her knee pain. Byrne immediately enrolled in the treatment program and was surprised at how quickly she began to notice a change.
“By week four, I noticed a significant difference—an improvement,” she says. “I felt like the combination of physical therapy and the injections really helped my pain. And the injections were less painful than a flu shot. I thought the whole package was great.”
As the program progressed, so did she. Once again, she was able to enjoy her favorite activities like shopping, volunteering, traveling with her family and walking her dogs.
“I’m not on pain medications anymore,” says Byrne, “and the best part is that I don’t feel like I need them as long as I stay in the program and keep moving.”
The program gave her an appreciation for movement and she’s incorporated physical therapy into her daily life.
“I’ve learned how important it is to keep moving,” she says. “You cannot get sedentary. What kind of life is that?”
This past December, she was able to hang Christmas lights on her house and during a recent vacation to Hawaii, she was able to participate in family hikes, walks and adventures—two activities she says she couldn’t have completed without the OsteoArthritis Program at Arrowhead Health Centers.
“I might not go fast,” she says, “but I go. You can’t let pain get the best of you. You’ve got to live!”
The Busy Retiree
Aging, or “wear and tear,” is the primary cause of osteoarthritis and unfortunately, it’s an uncontrollable factor. Many people begin to notice the effects of OA in their early fifties and almost everyone feels some symptoms—if not all of them—by age 70.
She may be retired, but Eva Lengfelder has more energy and zest for life than most 20-year-olds. She breaks a sweat five days a week during her favorite water aerobics class, volunteers at church, sews everything from potholders to aprons, participates in monthly Red Hat Society gatherings and cheers on the Nebraska Cornhuskers every chance she gets. She doesn’t have time for pain.
More than 20 years ago, Lengfelder was still living in Nebraska when a skiing accident left her with sore knees and the early stages of OA.
She expected to have pain after her injury but it became worse over time and she reached out to her doctor for help. He recommended arthroscopy—a mildly-invasive surgical procedure used to visualize, diagnose, and treat problems inside the knee joint. The arthroscopic surgery helped for a few years, but the results eventually wore off. By the time she moved to Phoenix 10 years later, the pain had spread to both knees and was completely unbearable.
“It was bad pain,” says Lengfelder. “Pain that I couldn’t stand.”
She wasn’t willing to let pain interfere with her life and she met with her doctor to learn her options. When Lengfelder told her specialist about the temporary results of her previous arthroscopic surgery, she was directed to the non-surgical OsteoArthritis Program.
“As soon as I started feeling pain again,” says Lengfelder, “I got help with the OA Program. I didn’t want to wait and I think that helped me a lot.”
Her positive attitude, intolerance for pain and dedication to the program helped her overcome her agonizing symptoms quickly.
“I just feel really good after the injections,” she says. “That kind of surprised me, too. Usually when you hear the word ‘shots’ you feel disabled. You think you’ll have to have someone drive you home, but that’s not the case with these [injections].”
Lengfelder says independence is a key benefit of the OsteoArthritis Program.
“I walk better, I feel better, I can do more things. And I don’t have to depend on anyone else to help me do them,” she says.
She is enthusiastic about maintaining her improvement through the OsteoArthritis Program.
“Dr. Vosler seems to think as long as I continue the program, I’ll either prolong knee surgery or I won’t need it at all,” says Lengfelder. “That’d be great.”
While she was receiving treatment for her knees, Lengfelder learned that the OsteoArthritis Program could relieve pain in other joints, too. So when she started experiencing back pain, it was an easy decision to sign up for the program; she plans to begin treatment for her back in March.
Her advice to others: “I think anyone with joint pain should do what I’ve done because it works. There’s hope for everyone. You don’t have to wait to feel better.”