“How Old Are Your Knees?”

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The Story

“How Old Are Your Knees?”
by Jeanne Erdmann
Women’s Health, December 2013

The Pitch

Why your knees hurt, now

Dear Ms. de Gersdorff,

Allyson Jackson is 29 years old, but she walks on the knees of an 80-year-old. Jackson doomed her left knee to early destruction by straining ligaments during collegiate volleyball; a hefty, post-college weight gain worsened the injuries. Fitness boxing helped Jackson lose the weight but she can’t save her knees. Now, a nurse on a pediatric intensive care unit, Jackson ices her knees six times a day, and wraps her left leg from ankle to thigh in an ace bandage at bedtime.

Kicking a regulation soccer ball beginning at age three gave Daniela Munoz the strength and skill to compete on top teams early on. Her first ACL tear came at age 13 as her elite team prepped for a tournament by playing against boys on a rutty, uneven field. At 15, Munoz tore a different ligament. Now 25, she needs total joint replacement.

Podiatrist Rebecca Pruthi’s young knees crackle so loudly that patients can hear her walking down the hall of her Manhattan office. Although Pruthi cares for many young dancers with arthritis in their feet, she remained in denial for years about her painful, swollen knees. Now in her late 30’s, Pruthi says the source of her osteoarthritis likely stems from years of pumping away on a Stairmaster.

Each of these women has a beautiful face, an athlete’s body, and terrible, crumbling knees. They also stand at the leading edge of a disturbing trend: Osteoarthritis (OA), a progressive joint disease so familiar to those in the 50-plus set, increasingly strikes women half that age. “Doctors are just beginning to see women in their twenties with either the beginnings of OA, or with end-stage joint disease,” says Dr. Alexis Colvin, an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Researchers used to think that OA came with advanced age, and joints simply broke down after a lifetime of wear and tear. Recent studies on the knees of injured athletes tell a different story, the story of post-traumatic osteoarthritis. Any knee injury, a ligament strain, an ACL tear, or a tiny chink in cartilage — the squishy tissue that cushions joints — starts a 10-year countdown to osteoarthritis. Because cartilage can’t repair itself, no drug, no surgical procedure, and no amount of ice can stop the destruction. Women are more susceptible to knee injuries because of the way we jump and land, and because more women compete at elite levels beginning as pre-teens.

The 10-year time frame between injury and arthritis is crucial for readers of Women’s Health, as women who suffered knees injuries 10 or 20 years ago as teenagers, are now OA sufferers in your demographic.

Allyson Jackson, Daniela Munoz, and Rebecca Pruthi, all need joint replacement surgery but are way too young for such a drastic step. To postpone the operation, Pruthi is having injections to her knee joints that replenish joint fluid and dampen inflammation, and exercising on low-impact cardio machines. Jackson and Munoz recently endured bone-breaking surgery to realign their knees, relieving pressure where their OA is worse. Pruthi hopes to return to fitness boxing. Munoz hopes to join her fiancé on the soccer field—if their knees can take it.

I propose a feature that will include:

*Accounts from young women with knee osteoarthritis
*Insight and advice from experts who will explain what treatments are available to slow disease progression, and who will discuss how to prevent OA
* The signs and symptoms of OA, such as dull throbbing in cold weather, and knees that catch and crackle when you walk
*Advice on how to find the best orthopedic surgeon to suit your needs

A sidebar titled “These Joints are Jumping” will explain how to prevent OA by preventing injuries. Daniela Munoz said of her early years in sports: “We do the drills that our coaches tell us, but female athletes need a mentor to remind us how to take care of our joints.”

Warmest regards,

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