Osteoarthritis in Our Military Servicemen and Servicewomen
Do our fighting men and women experience a greater risk of osteoarthritis?
One of the greatest privileges of being a doctor is the opportunity to serve some of the people who serve us every day. I am talking about our police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, emergency service workers, and, of course, our military. I have had the humbling honor of helping to care for many veterans of past and current wars. I have found a common theme among them -- while they are training and/or at war, they don't have the opportunity to stop and rest if they are in pain.
I remember one marine who had served in Iraq. I asked him how his knee and lower back pain began. He wasn't exactly sure of the date, but he said that while in Iraq, he would routinely carry bags on his back weighing more than 100 pounds. He knew that his knee and lower back were hurting around that time and had hurt since. The MRI of this marine's knee revealed a very large meniscal tear. I asked him if he ever told anyone how much pain he was in. The marine smiled and said, "No, that was not an option."
I can certainly understand where he and his commanders were coming from. They were stationed in a combat zone. In a theatre of war, survival is more important than a pain in the knee or lower back, even when that pain is significant. Another marine stationed in the Far East told me that the motto he followed, and the one he was taught was, "Pain is just weakness leaving the body."
No matter what you think of the war or of politics, we all owe a profound debt to these brave men and women who risk their bodies and lives for us everyday. One of the debts we owe them is to recognize that all of the abuse they suffer, even if we patch them up in the short term, likely puts them at an increased risk of osteoarthritis in the future.
One of the major risk factors for developing pain from osteoarthritis is a significant injury, particularly one that is not properly cared for. If someone hurts their knee and then continues to use and damage it, the cartilage in that knee degenerates more quickly than it would have otherwise. The same is true for every joint in the body. One major point working in favor of military personnel, on the other hand, a point that minimizes their future risk of developing osteoarthritis, is that most military personnel tend to stay in better shape than the rest of the population even after they have finished active duty. As we have discussed in previous blogs, keeping your muscles strong and flexible reduces the risk of developing osteoarthritis.
I am not a politician and never hope to be one. From my conversations with military personnel, it seems to me that as a society we need to do a better job taking care of those who sacrifice so much for us. We need to take better care of their immediate needs when they leave active duty, and we also need to take care of them as they age. Part of this responsibility on our part is recognizing that former military personnel may run an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis in the future.