Chronic arthritis pain hurts. It impacts nearly every aspect of life, from sleep to work to relationships. During the past year, more than one-third of people with arthritis stopped visiting their doctor out of fear of contracting COVID-19. That hiatus from treatment only made chronic pain worse. This June, during Men’s Health Month, we’re focused on helping people with arthritis take back control of their mental and physical health by teaching them when and how to ask for help with pain.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Alan Beyer is taking part in this mission to tackle the pain and stigma surrounding arthritis. For men, he says seeking treatment can be hard. Societal pressures often make some men think they aren’t allowed to feel pain and should instead fight through the discomfort. Unfortunately, delaying treatment for arthritis can cause physical damage to joints and lead to higher incidences of depression and anxiety.
“Men have been groomed to feel like it’s their job to always be strong,” says Dr. Beyer. “But the reality is, they are just as likely to experience pain as anyone else. Chronic pain isn’t something that has to go silently untreated. Men should be encouraged to speak up and seek help when their bodies are hurting. Without treatment, inflammatory disease can whittle away joints and do irreversible damage, so seeing a doctor at the first signs of pain is vital.”
Dr. Beyer says that men often don’t have a problem seeking treatment for traumatic injuries that occur from things like a sports injury or car accident. But for men suffering from inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, they often feel as though they should tough out the pain instead of talk to their doctor.
“If you’re injured playing baseball or are involved in a car accident, it’s easier to ask for help,” says Dr. Beyer. “The same should be true for men with chronic inflammatory diseases, but often that’s not the case. Diseases like fibromyalgia and other chronically misunderstood conditions have traditionally been underreported in men. It’s not that men aren’t suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, it’s that they are less likely to seek out help for it even though it’s just as detrimental to their health as any sports injury.”
Arthritis is a painful disease and, left untreated, can cause irreversible damage. For Dr. Beyer, getting more men to embrace their diagnosis and seek treatment is a crucial step in helping his patients take control of their physical health as well as improve their mental well-being. By reducing chronic pain, people with arthritis can do more of the things they love, which helps reduce stress and improve their overall levels of contentment.
“Chronic pain is fatiguing. There is nothing worse than pulling your aching body from bed in the morning. It causes depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Beyer. “If we only treat the depression but don’t treat the underlying cause of the physical pain, patients can’t get back to leading their best life. We have to address both the physical pain and mental pain so that people can feel whole again.”
Dismissing chronic pain not only takes a toll on mental health, but it can also lead to severe degeneration of joints. Progressive diseases like rheumatoid arthritis can erode joint tissue if gone untreated. Once that level of joint deterioration occurs, surgical replacement may be the only option for some patients.
“Clearly, in a disease that is progressive, the longer you ignore it, the longer it will take to get under control,” says Dr. Beyer. “If you have rheumatoid arthritis, ignoring pain could lead to the destruction of a joint, and then it’s too late for conservative treatments. As an orthopedic surgeon, I see a lot of men who have waited so long to get help that there are few options other than total joint replacement.”
As both a joint replacement and psoriatic arthritis patient himself, Dr. Beyer understands that it can be easier to dismiss pain than confront it head on. But acknowledging pain and seeking treatment is the first step in taking back control. He believes that educating patients can help more men seek treatment for chronic diseases that affect their joints.
“Any unexplained pain is reason enough to see a physician,” says Dr. Beyer. “If you have stiff hands and haven’t done anything that would cause that, you should talk to your doctor. If you have unexplained fevers, swollen joints or are in enough pain that you would consider opioid medication, it’s time to see a doctor. Your body is trying to tell you that something is wrong, and brushing that aside will not make the pain go away.”
For people who have missed regular treatments due to the pandemic, now is the time to take back control and see your doctor.
“If you’ve been too fearful to see your doctor this past year, get vaccinated and get treatment,” says Dr. Beyer. “If you’re worried about the vaccine, talk to your doctor, but don’t put off treatment any longer. And if you’re just starting to notice pain in your hands or joints or you have unexplained low-grade fevers, don’t just tough it out. Speak with your doctor and be honest about your symptoms and pain level.”
Speak with Dr. Beyer about how to ask for help during the Men in Chronic Pain: Overcoming Stigma, Finding Solutions Facebook Live event on Thursday, June 17, from 6:00-7:15 p.m. ET. Dr. Beyer and a panel of diverse patients and physicians representing pain management, orthopedics and psychology will have a candid conversation on the physical, mental and emotional effects of arthritis. Get advice on overcoming stigmas like toughing out pain when it comes to fatherhood, relationships, career, military service, health disparities and more. Plus, share your experience with arthritis and chronic pain by completing the INSIGHTS survey.
Listen to Dr. Beyer on the Arthritis Pain & Surgery podcast episode for tips on what to consider if surgery is suggested for you.
Dr. Alan Beyer is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, arthroscopic surgery of the knee and total knee replacement. He’s the medical director of Hoag Orthopedic Institute and also practices at Newport Orthopedic Institute in Newport Beach, California. Dr. Beyer has written numerous academic papers and is currently principal investigator for two clinical trials. He is known as the host of “Doctor in the Dugout,” a weekly radio show that takes an entertaining look at sports medicine and sport-related injuries. — HEIDI BRAGG