Arthritis patients left in prolonged pain due to pandemic backlog

Thousands with arthritis have seen vital operations suspended because of Covid, reports Joanne Savage

Thursday, 30th July 2020, 8:00 am
Treatment for those suffering with arthritis has been halted during the pandemic

One such demographic affected are those across the province who face a daily battle with the pain of arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions.

National charity Versus Arthritis has warned of the urgent need to prioritise NHS recovery plans to support sufferers forced to bear the brunt of this widespread disruption to treatment and surgery, with many now facing years of waiting in pain for life-changing treatments such as joint replacement surgery.

In fact, the consequences of lockdown for arthritis sufferers have been devastating, according to research undertaken by the charity.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

The survey of over 6,000 people with arthritis across the UK found that 47 per cent of people experiencing chronic pain in Northern Ireland had had their appointments cancelled due to lockdown.

A third (34 per cent) have not had access to the care and treatment they need to manage their pain, and over half (56 per cent) reported being unable to complete tasks around the home because of this, with 54 per cent unable to be physically active at all due to the levels of discomfort they were experiencing.

Some 47 per cent of respondents reported feeling more lonely or isolated as a result of the social distancing occasioned by the pandemic, with 48 per cent reporting difficulties accessing shopping or deliveries.

Over 487,000 people in Northern Ireland live with a musculoskeletal condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and back pain. Even before Covid-19, Northern Ireland had by far the worst waiting times of any part of the UK, with many waiting years to access vital health services including physiotherapy, rheumatology and crucial joint replacement surgery.

Versus Arthritis has launched a campaign warning the Government that if people continue to be unable to access appropriate health care then thousands across the country are at risk of significant health deterioration and the health service will pay a higher price in the long term.

It says waiting times for surgery in Northern Ireland are significantly higher than the rest of the UK, with the most recent statistics from March showing that 45 per cent of those in need of a crucial operation to relieve arthritic or joint pain were waiting more than 52 weeks for an initial outpatient consultation and an additional 52 weeks for surgery on average.

Elizabeth McLucas, 57, from Comber, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She was put on the waiting list for a full left hip replacement in January 2019. X-rays taken since then have shown that her hip is continuing to deteriorate, leaving her in even greater pain than before. She was expecting to have her surgery in July 2019, but it still hasn’t taken place and she hasn’t had any communication from her consultant about when it will happen.

Elizabeth said: “I used to be a very active person who would have gone to the gym several times a week and I was always out and about, walking my dogs and meeting people for coffee. I used to work as a special needs classroom assistant. But since developing arthritis I am basically housebound now and the pain in my hip is killing me. I’m in sheer agony and on very bad days I am forced to stay in bed which really gets me down psychologically. It is excruciating, just to put my left foot onto the floor, it’s a constant grinding pain, like a hot poker. Any movement now at all is so difficult.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is also causing problems in other joints, in my shoulders and now in my fingers too.

“Last time I spoke to a doctor at the hospital he said they haven’t resumed doing any surgery yet because of Covid-19, so all they can do is increase my pain killers. I’m like a zombie with them. I’m taking co-codamol, which barely takes the edge off.

“I did a pain management course with Versus Arthritis which really helped me and then I trained as a facilitator so I can deliver this course and have been doing so online during lockdown to help others who are suffering just as I am.

“The waiting lists in Northern Ireland are ridiculous. I need the surgery to get my life back. It’s been 18 months now and I have no idea when my hip operation will be.

“I don’t blame the NHS. I have nothing bad to say about them because I know they do great work and Covid has become the priority but I just hope I can get the treatment I need very soon because the pain is unbearable.

“I think the Government need to put more money and resources into the NHS so that we can see better service provision for all kinds of patients and not just those affected by Covid. There is a backlog of people suffering that could be cleared if the NHS had the capability through enhanced Government funding. I would love to speak to our politicians to tell them what it is like being on a waiting list like this and to urge them to put more money into the health budget.”

Mary Anderson, 64, from Belfast, suffers from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Mary was told she needed surgery on her left ankle in June 2019, but due to her rheumatoid arthritis medication she needed a three-month review before going onto the waiting list. That review didn’t happen until March 2020, and by then it was too late – a proper assessment could not be done due to Covid, and now she’s left in limbo.

Mary said: “The most frustrating thing is that I’ve been told I should be on a waiting list for ankle surgery, and the point of my consultation in March was to determine how high up on the list I need to go. But as this was done over the phone due to Covid, an X-ray could not be taken, and a proper assessment couldn’t be made.

“If this appointment had happened when it was supposed to in September 2019, I wouldn’t be waiting in pain like I am today. My ankle is constantly sore. Any pressure I put on it causes searing pain, even if I’m just standing still. So, what’s happening now is that I can’t exercise or walk, which is causing other joints to become more painful. My overall health is deteriorating because of this one joint, so it needs to be operated on now.

“I bought some ankle supports but they’re not helping, and they put too much pressure on my foot, which is already badly affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Nothing takes the pain away and I’m reluctant to go onto heavy duty pain killers.

“The cost isn’t just physical – it’s emotional too. It affects relationships and my desire to do things. But, there’s no indication of when surgery will resume, so I’m just stuck in a painful limbo.”

Sara Graham, Northern Ireland Director of Versus Arthritis said: “The health service has just about survived Covid-19 so far, but at the expense of services that many relied upon to sustain their quality of life. The Northern Ireland Government must take urgent steps to ensure people with arthritis are not forgotten or ignored. We can’t go back to ‘normal’ - we must demand better. It’s imperative that recovery plans include arthritis treatments, including joint replacement surgery, so this crisis does not accelerate further. Governments must prioritise bringing down waiting lists, restarting planned joint replacement surgery and ensuring people are given clear information on what to expect as well as support to manage their pain.”

For information on the services offered by Versus Arthritis visit www.versusarthritis.org.