Namath offers 'game plan' in fight against arthritis

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2002 10:07 a.m. MDT

Football brought Joe Namath acclaim, fortune, adventure and joy. It made him a household name.

And it's at least partly responsible for the osteoarthritis in his knees, his spine and thumbs.

But just as he didn't let injuries end his 13-year pro football career, the NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP hasn't let the disease slow him down much. He just had to find a workable game plan.

Now he's sharing it as part of the Arthritis Huddle. Monday, he was in Salt Lake City, where he told about 600 people they need to work closely with their doctors to combine exercise, a healthy diet, relaxation and medicine in a regimen that brings relief. What works varies with each person.

Osteoarthritis is one of more than 100 different forms of arthritis. It causes inflammation of the joints, accompanied by throbbing and aching that used to keep Namath awake for nights on end. It's incurable but not untreatable.

The Arthritis Huddle is an education campaign sponsored by CARES (Collaborative Arthritis Research and Education Services), Creaking Joints, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals and Abbott Laboratories.

At each stop he talks about the need to be proactive in managing the symptoms and limitations of the disease. It starts, he said, with basics. Before you go to the doctor, he counsels, write down what's going on, what medications you're taking, your questions.

"Osteoarthritis is not going to put you six feet under," he said. "People live with a lot more difficult circumstances than I have."

Though not life-threatening, it is life-altering. "Emotionally, it worked on some friendships. You're always cranky when you're in pain. It doesn't help one's lifestyle to live with an arthritic condition.

"We're trying to give people the resources to find out exactly how they should approach" their arthritis, he said, adding that talking to people with arthritis has been "astounding. They're not getting enough help."

His own experience with osteoarthritis began at 23. Over time, he's battled bad knees (he had both reconstructed in 1992), slight compression of the sixth and seventh vertebrae in his spine (the muscles spasmed so badly he thought he was paralyzed) and, more recently, burning and throbbing at the base of his thumbs that left him screaming once when he gripped his steering wheel wrong.

His age, the fact his mother had arthritis and old sports injuries have all contributed to the condition, he said.

He had the benefit of always having team doctors, trainers and coaches around, he said. Diet was never an issue; he was an athlete who ate wisely. Exercise was central to the life he chose, as well. But learning to relax and finding the right medication to relieve the pain and stiffness were harder to come by.

He takes the drug MOBIC but says people need to work with their doctors to find what helps them. "One medication may work better for someone than another," he said, adding that people who take over-the-counter medications without checking them out may be courting disaster. Each year, an estimated 15,000 people die from internal bleeding.

Smith's Food and Drug and the Utah-Idaho chapter of the Arthritis Foundation co-sponsored the event; the latter figures into one of the Huddle's key points: "It's important to feel like someone cares. You need support. But you have to do it yourself, too. You have to commit some time to it. You have to prioritize exercise. It's a lot harder to break bad habits than start good ones."

Even the elderly — who are most likely to have arthritic conditions — can build up a little at a time, Namath said.

These days, he works out on elliptical machines and uses light weights. Anything that pounds bad joints is likely not a good idea, he said. Neither is overdoing it.

The payoff is huge, though the condition doesn't leave. "It's a chance to improve the quality of life and that's why we're teaming up."

More information is available online at www.arthritishuddle.com or by calling 1-866-624-8335 (OA-HUDDLE).


E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com

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