THE figures are astonishing – a record 436,127 operations and treatment plans in England have been put on hold for over a year.
But behind each statistic is a real person who is waiting in limbo for the day of their surgery, when they might get their life back.
Experts say orthopedic surgery has been the hardest hit during the Covid pandemic – when hospitals across the country had to scale back on operations in order to treat coronavirus patients.
Versus Arthritis says “hip and knee replacements were in the category of planned surgery that has been worst affected and slowest to restart over the last year”.
Some 92,000 have been waiting longer than 52 weeks for their op compared to 700 people a year ago.
The leading charity says there is “no end date in sight” for thousands of people in agony, many of whom have stopped working, have developed depression, and are housebound.
Brenda Pugh, 61, was put on the waiting list for a hip replacement on June 2020, and says: “I don't know if it'll be six months or six years. It's hard to mentally deal with that.
“If I didn’t think positively I wouldn’t be able to carry on.
“It would be lovely to be communicated with a bit more often – even if it's just to say we don't know, and we are sorry. But there's nothing.”
Brenda, who developed arthritis in 2019, says her life is now riddled with pain that’s like “walking on sharp swords”.
It prevents her from leaving her home in Petersfield, Hampshire, where she lives alone.
She said, “I never thought I’d end up in this situation”, having previously commuted to a busy job in London, loved walking her dog and doing yoga.
"Unbelievable" waiting list
Brenda is not alone.
Of the five million NHS patients on the waiting list, 620,000 are those needing trauma and orthopaedic surgery, which is disproportionately high compared with other health issues.
More than 92,000 have been waiting for more than a year compared to just 700 a year ago.
The vice president of the British Orthopaedic Association, Professor John Skinner, says the figures are “almost unbelievable”.
He says: “It’s easy to dismiss arthritis. Everyone over 40 gets a little niggle here and there. But this is different – these patients’ lives have been transformed by pain.
“These stories are truly harrowing. With end stage arthritis, the pain and loss of mobility is so miserable, the patients would rather not be alive. It is real.
“We must prioritise these operations now.”
With so few operation slots available in the NHS, people with life-threatening diseases like cancer, heart disease and trauma injuries are being prioritised.
Although arthritis won’t kill, it can significantly diminish people’s quality of life.
Prof Skinner said: “Patients adapt their lives, and stop doing things and going out. That can lead to isolation.
“Patients fear becoming a burden to their friends and family and losing independence.”
"Walking on swords"
That’s the reality for Christine Stubbs, 70, who has spent every day of the last year in the four walls of her bedroom upstairs so she is close to the bathroom.
Her husband, John, 69, brings meals up to her as well as taking care of the housework.
Christine was told she would be at the top of the list for surgery when she was diagnosed with arthritis in her hip in July 2019.
Almost two years later, she has this week been given a date for her op.
Although over the moon, Christine’s condition has deteriorated so much she is wheelchair bound.
The grandmother from Betley, Staffordshire, says: “The pain is severe, like someone is sticking a knife in. I can’t explain it any other way. The pain is constant, even tramadol three times a day doesn't take it away.
“Mentally, I’m frazzled. I've been feeling suicidal on quite a number of occasions. I try not to think about it.”
Feeling “neglected” by the NHS, Christine claims she has only been given a stool to help her in and out of the shower as a means of improving her quality of life.
She said she feared she would become bed-ridden by the time she was taken seriously, adding: “I’m fed up of hearing about Covid. To me, now, it’s just an excuse for everything, that’s how I feel.”
Like Brenda, 64-year-old Rob Martinez is waiting on word from the NHS having been on the list for a double knee replacement since October 2019.
Though he was fortunate to have his right knee replaced in October 2020, it's still painful and Rob says he’s been unable to see a consultant.
He has had no communication on when his second operation may be, leaving his left knee to worsen.
Rob, from Sandhurst in Berkshire, says: “On the darkest days I felt like giving up, but it’s important to try and stay positive.
“I'm just having to deal with this on my own, waiting for something to happen. Every day when the post comes, I hope a date comes through, but nothing happens.”
“I live on my own and just about manage.
“Yesterday I was shopping in Tesco and I was really struggling. I don't know how I got through it, I just wanted to leave the shopping and walk out the shop.”
How can you help your arthritis at home?
Living with severe arthritis can be agony. Painkillers prescribed by the doctor, surgery, psychological therapies or treatments such as hydrotherapy can help.
But outside of those, there are some things you can try to relieve the symptoms:
- a heat pad, heated rice pad or a hot-water bottle
- an ice pack or a cold-water compress
- massage (with or without creams that create a sense of warmth)
- rest and good quality sleep – disturbed or unrefreshing sleep can increase pain, so speak to your doctor if you have this problem
- try and stay a healthy weight
- quit smoking
- eat oily fish
- keep moving as much as possible
- modify your home to make life easier
- use braces or aids
- ask for help with tasks
- connect with others for support
Prof Skinner says the best form of relief for arthritis is surgery, which “transforms lives” and almost instantly takes away the pain after a short recovery.
With Covid rates at record lows, and vaccines giving a way to normality, Prof Skinner says “things are improving” and there is hope for those on the waiting list.
“There are some pretty clever people putting their heads together to work out the possible options for the whole of the NHS, what's the best way to expand capacity and treat more patients”, he says.
“But because of this backlog, we will have to find new and better ways of working so we can treat more patients, because we’ve got to solve this backlog problem.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Treating more than 350,000 patients for Covid-19 throughout the pandemic has inevitably had a knock-on effect on other care.
"But even in January – the NHS’s busiest month for Covid-19 admissions, with over 100,000 patients – hard-working staff treated more than one million people for other conditions.
“Average waiting times for elective operations have significantly fallen since last year, and doctors, nurses, therapists and other staff across the NHS are continuing to support people with arthritis and prepare them for eventual surgery, as we work hard to fully restore services in a safe and sustainable way.”
Versus Arthritis has started the Impossible to Ignore campaign to ensure people with arthritis are not left behind as the Government plans the route out of Covid.
It encourages anyone waiting for surgery to contact its helpline on 0800 5200 520.
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