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Coach K: Osteoarthritis Can Be Beaten

Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski overcame potentially crippling foe

MONDAY, Oct. 12 (HealthDay News) -- As head coach of the Duke University men's basketball team for the past 29 years, Mike Krzyzewski has faced plenty of tough opponents. But none proved to be more formidable than osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis and a leading cause of disability in the United States.

Krzyzewski (pronounced shah-SHEFF-skee) says he began experiencing severe hip discomfort during the 1994 season. With the help of physical therapy and over-the-counter and prescription painkillers, he managed to put up with the pain for five years. He considered joint-replacement surgery but kept putting it off.

"Being a coach and an athlete, I thought I should be able to tough it out," he said. "But the pain became crazy-bad during the 1998-1999 season. The last couple of months of the season, I had to coach while sitting on a stool. I thought I would have to give up coaching altogether."

But Coach K, as he is widely known, refused to give up the game he loved. Instead, he gave up his left hip, opting to undergo total joint replacement surgery in April 1999, when he was 52. By the following June, he was back to his normal activities -- only his hip was now pain-free and he was no longer walking with a limp. Two years later, he led the Blue Devils to their third national championship.

Now 62, Krzyzewski says he wishes he had had surgery sooner. Given the years of pain and increasing disability he endured, he said his decision to delay surgery "was not a smart thing to do."

So, when his right hip began to bother him, he was quicker to go under the knife, having a second joint replacement operation in April 2002. Like the first, the second surgery was a success: Krzyzewski is again a spirited presence at courtside -- and not only at Duke. In 2008, he led the USA men's basketball team to a gold medal performance at the Olympic Games in Beijing, and he recently agreed to return as coach for the 2012 Olympics in London.

If Krzyzewski's occupation and high-profile career make him a special case among the estimated 27 million Americans who suffer from osteoarthritis, his initial response to having the disease is fairly typical.

"People tend to ignore the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis when it first strikes," said Dr. John H. Klippel, president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation. "They try to push through the pain and hope it goes away on its own. It doesn't."

Osteoarthritis is a chronic condition. It can affect any joint but occurs most commonly in knees, lower back, fingertips or, as in Krzyzewski's case, the hips. Mild to moderate osteoarthritis can often be controlled with pain-killing medication (typically acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), perhaps in conjunction with injections of corticosteroids in the affected joints. Regular physical activity is a must for preserving mobility and preventing the weight gain that makes matters worse, said Klippel, who is using Monday, Oct. 12, World Arthritis Day, to spread the word that osteoarthritis is a very treatable condition.

"When the pain becomes severe, people tend to become less active," he said. "But as you become less active, you gain weight, contributing to the progression of the disease."

When nonsurgical treatments prove insufficient, joint-replacement surgery is generally the best option, Klippel said. "We should not underestimate the importance of total joint replacement," he said. "For millions of people like Coach K, it has given their lives back."

Krzyzewski, who is now a paid consultant to a maker of prosthetic joints, couldn't agree more. "When I think back to what would have happened if I hadn't had the surgery, I realize all the things I would never have been able to accomplish, whether it's winning a national championship or being part of a gold-medal experience. I don't have any limitations now," he said.

More information

To learn more about osteoarthritis, visit the Arthritis Foundation.

SOURCES: Mike Krzyzewski, head coach, men's basketball team, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; John H. Klippel, M.D., president and CEO, the Arthritis Foundation, Atlanta

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