Learning to Live With and Manage Osteoarthritis in Your 20s and 30s

Ryan Rankin
Ryan Rankin

At a time in my life when working hard and playing hard were everyday occurrences, I found myself part of a group I didn’t plan on joining for decades. And one very rarely associated with young adults.

I’ve always been an active person. I played basketball in college and then for a year professionally in Europe, and enjoy hobbies like hiking, golf, and working out. I planned on getting the most out of those activities well into my 50s and beyond.

At 28, my hopes and dreams of continuing those activities came to a halt with one diagnosis: Chronic osteoarthritis (OA) in my right ankle.

After that diagnosis I felt totally lost. I didn’t know anyone in their 20s with osteoarthritis to turn to for guidance and had no idea how to cope or even begin to manage the condition. I always thought only people in their 60s and 70s got OA. I was too young and too active for this to be happening to me!

Over the past 11 years, I’ve learned how to better manage my osteoarthritis. It has been an emotional rollercoaster at times, especially when I’ve seen my friends enjoy the activities I used to do. I’m no expert and I still have a lot of work ahead, but I feel like I have the right tools to use to better manage my OA.

Here are five ways I’ve learned to live with OA as a young adult:

1. Develop a sense of realistic hope

One of the most important things I had to learn about living with osteoarthritis was to develop a sense of realistic hope. Soon after my diagnosis, I became obsessed with finding a “cure” that would save my ankle and get me back to doing what I loved. It didn’t take long to realize that no such cure existed and any more energy spent looking for one only resulted in wasted time and disappointment. For me, realistic hope meant accepting what chronic ankle osteoarthritis means for my future and understanding how the condition will affect my body. I still find myself daydreaming about backpacking trips, but it’s important for me to return to reality and manage my OA by embracing a more realistic way to move forward.

2. Experiment with various treatments

Osteoarthritis is a finicky condition that affects people differently, so effective treatments also differ from person to person. I’ve tried dozens of treatments, from diets to physical therapy and everything in between. Some worked but most didn’t. For those that did work, they’ve helped me learn to better manage my OA as the condition has worsened by allowing for consistency with how I manage my OA during the best and worst of times and learning to understand what does and does not work for me.

3. Support groups

When I was first diagnosed with osteoarthritis, it was difficult to find others to talk with who were in a similar situation. No one in my group of friends could relate, so I had to look elsewhere. Thankfully, great resources like the Arthritis Foundation have local offices and the Osteoarthritis and Sport/Exercise group on Facebook and Reddit’s Osteoarthritis and Arthritis subreddits have been able to provide the resources and support I’ve needed over the years. I’ve talked with a lot of people dealing with the same OA issues I have and it’s been comforting to hear their stories.

4. Create a new lifestyle

Osteoarthritis has taken away many of my favorite activities and will try to take away others in my future. I realized early on that as I lost the ability to do a one activity, I needed to find a more OA friendly activity to fill that gap. While I can no longer play basketball, I’ve taken up swimming as a new hobby. Staying active and creating a healthy lifestyle around my condition has been beneficial to me both physically and emotionally.

5. Have patience. It’s a marathon.

If there’s a silver lining to getting osteoarthritis at a young age it is that I’ve had a lot of time to learn how to manage the condition. I’ve used that time to find what treatments worked for me, talked with others who were in my position, and worked to create a lifestyle that allowed me to manage OA in a way that was best for me. It hasn’t been easy and took a lot of time and frustration. But once everything started coming together, all the hard work began to pay off, making the aches and pains a little easier to manage.

I’ve learned a lot about managing osteoarthritis over the past decade, but I’ll never have it mastered. There’s always a new treatment to try, OA friendly activity to learn, or someone to talk with. By keeping an open mind and being real about my situation, I know I’m setting myself up for continuing to manage my OA the best I can.

See more helpful articles:

How to Exercise with Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Common Conditions That Can Mimic Osteoarthritis

6 Differences Between Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis