Knee - October 15, 2018
You can run with osteoarthritis, and you don’t need surgery to do it

“When I was told that I couldn’t run, I lost a stress outlet and didn’t enjoy life.” – Jane Fitzgerald, Osteoarthritis patient

Osteoarthritis (OA) is often seen as a barrier preventing an athlete from being able to participate in exercise such as running. Recent studies have shown that not only is this a common misconception, but exercise is needed to assist with recovery and ease the effects of OA on the body.

When we think about OA we often associate it with older or inactive people. When in fact, OA frequently occurs in young adults. Many young adults all over the world suffer from OA, causing them to refrain from exercising, often unnecessarily.

OA is common among runners and can affect younger adults for several reasons. It is linked to being overweight, and thought to be impacted by how much stress is put onto joints such as hips and knees during running. In OA, the cartilage in the joint can break down resulting in an enlarged or deformed joint. Movement becomes extremely difficult and surgery is often proposed by medical professionals as the only solution.

Arthroscopy or clean out surgery are often offered to suffering patients, despite less expensive, safer and equally or more effective treatments being available for someone to manage their OA and get back to exercising again. Studies comparing the results from arthroscopy surgery to placebo surgery have shown that there is no difference in outcome.

Jane Fitzgerald was a frequent long-distance runner who at 40 years old, was diagnosed with OA. She had a fall while out shopping one day and injured her left knee. She took some time off but when she got back into running found that at 14kms her knee would begin hurting. She had an MRI scan and was told to not run again by multiple people. Through specialist opinion she was told she should have an arthroscopy if she ever wanted to run again.

Jane was devastated. Not only was running her favourite activity, but it was also a big part of her social life as she had met several friends through it.

“You’re not thinking about breaking up with running are you?” her friend had asked.

Jane tried other ways to remain active but struggled to find a connection or enjoy anything else as much.

“I tried swimming, bike riding and interval training but did not enjoy these activities. I began to feel grumpy and was unable to think clearly,” she said. 

Luckily, a friend recommended Jane see physiotherapist who specialises in running injuries (Dr Christian Barton, a physio therapists and researcher at La Trobe University).

“I found that Dr Barton was a good teacher, easy to understand and explained everything clearly. The goals we developed together were realistic and started in small increments,” Jane explained.

“By strengthening our system and preparing it better for running, along with optimising running technique through coaching, we can effectively prevent symptom progression and reduce pain,” Dr Barton says.

After a lot of hard work and exercise training, Jane was eventually able to run again. She is back to running every day and has run multiple half marathons pain free since returning to running.

Her passion for running is so strong, meaning continued participation is vital for her mental health and well-being.

Jane uses it as a tool to stay organised, distress and clear her head. When she was unable to run, both herself and her family noticed a change in her mood and she admits to becoming more irritable. Now that she is back on track, her overall well being has improved significantly, and she is living a much happier lifestyle.

“It’s like your brain is filled with cobwebs and running blows all the cobwebs away,” she explained.

Jane encouraged others who are going through a similar situation to find a good physio who is running sympathetic, is willing to work with you and will not tell you to stop.

Jane’s story is a perfect example of how active management and rehabilitation exercise can significantly improve OA management and allow a passionate runner to continue doing what they love – running.

– By Jo Monahan (in collaboration with Dr Christian Barton)