Combat the ‘silent enemy’ of arthritis in armed forces

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a veteran who lost both legs when her helicopter was hit in Iraq, at a USO event in Washington, May 21, 2014. Duckworth was attacked by the National Republican Senatorial Committee for “not standing up for our veterans” in a tweet that was quickly retracted — though not before provoking fury online. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Medical research within the military has led to exciting breakthroughs and discoveries that benefit not only U.S. service members and veterans, but all Americans who are affected by disease.

The military health system and patient population provide unique opportunities to conduct clinical trials, test prevention strategies, and track disease progression over time by tapping into the well-documented medical histories of active duty personnel.

Despite this, there remains very little military-funded research for one of the most painful and debilitating conditions affecting many of those who serve our country: Arthritis.

A serious, chronic and progressively degenerative disease affecting the body’s joints and connective tissues, arthritis disproportionately impacts our service members.

In fact, one in three veterans is diagnosed with arthritis — compared to one in five Americans in the general population. Arthritis is the leading cause of disability among U.S. veterans today and the second leading cause of medical discharge from the U.S. Army.

It’s not surprising why arthritis impacts so many in the military community.

The physical demands of the job lead to high-impact injuries, creating long-term damage to joints, tissue, and cartilage. Even basic training activities — like wearing 100-plus pound packs or jumping from trucks with heavy gear on — can result in injuries that affect service members for the rest of their lives.

I know this because I’ve seen it firsthand. As an active duty rheumatologist who served in the U.S. Army for 13 years, I witnessed many service members sustain these injuries early in their careers.

At my rheumatology practice here in Charleston, I also treat many veterans who have developed post traumatic osteoarthritis as a result of their service.

And while there is a “window of opportunity” for damaged joint tissue to heal on its own, it is generally frowned upon in the military to complain about pain, or slack off on physical activity during injury. As a result, many service members and veterans end up suffering in silence, delaying diagnosis and treatment.

Because arthritis has been a “silent enemy” in the military for so long, we are just beginning to understand the enormous physical, financial, and societal costs of this disease.

We know that many veterans suffer from reduced quality of life that requires years of ongoing therapy, medications, and potential surgeries. Likewise, arthritis has become responsible for rising Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs health costs.

Despite the prevalence and impact of arthritis in the military, there is no dedicated budget at the Department of Defense to conduct arthritis research that could aid prevention, diagnosis and treatment efforts.

Recently, I traveled to our nation’s capital on behalf of the American College of Rheumatology to educate congressional leaders about the need to create a stand-alone arthritis medical research program within the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.

By providing $20 million in dedicated funding for arthritis research, we would better meet the growing needs of active military personnel and veterans who have irreversible and lifelong medical conditions related to their service.

I respectfully urge U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, as well as U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, to support investment in Department of Defense-funded arthritis research for our service members and veterans.

Together, we can ensure the thousands of members of our military living with arthritis are given the care they deserve.

Dr. Colin C. Edgerton is a former Army rheumatologist who practices at Low Country Rheumatology in Charleston.