Improved devices offer more mobility for arthritis sufferers

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2005

LUBBOCK, Texas - Go ahead. Shake her hand. The rheumatoid arthritis doesn't hurt.

One of the best activities that 77-year-old Murlene Slagle can do is pour the gravy from her iron skillet over chicken-fried steak. Now, it's a simple task, but not three years ago.

Slagle had her right wrist fused for strength and her left was revamped with a new wrist device called Universal2 Wrist Implant.

She said she can never forget Christmastime three years ago, when she got rheumatoid arthritis. Slagle said she got up one morning and didn't feel right - just run down and sore. Within a week, she was bound to a wheelchair - her body wracked with pain .

"Basically, I couldn't use my hands," Slagle said. "This thumb was drawn over. It was laying in the palm of my hand. The rheumatoid arthritis hit me a year before I finally had to have the joint replacement. I couldn't do anything, just sit in the chair and cry."

Rheumatoid arthritis is an illness that affects almost every organ in the body, according to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.

About 1 percent of the population suffers from the disease, and women are more prone than men.

Unlike osteoarthritis, which commonly comes from wear and tear and age, the linings of the joints swell, take over surrounding tissues and make chemicals that attack and destroy the joint surfaces, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It can affect hands, feet, hips knees and elbows.

The causes aren't understood fully. Genetics plays a role, but infection or an environmental factor causes the patients to develop the disease.

Despite their wide use, wrist implants have had a bad name for the past 15-20 years, said Dr. Melinda Garcia, the hand surgeon at Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock who performed Slagle's surgery.

Prone to popping out of place and having to be cemented into the body, older implants caused more problems than they solved, she said.

The new implant uses a radial and carpal element that screws into the hand instead of being cemented, she said, which makes it easier to replace or remove should the unit fail.

"The wrist implants that were available weren't that great," Garcia said. "This was the first implant that I felt like made sense and would work.

This new wrist replacement had the fortune of looking at all these problems and all these failures and learned from it."

The procedure requires staples and stitches for about three weeks, Garcia said. Then, patients are asked not to put too much stress on the joints for 10 to 12 weeks while the bones and tendons heal.

Though the wrist can't take the load of the natural model, it does give some movement back to rheumatoid patients, Garcia said.

"You can't ever make it the way God made it," Garcia said. "Our goal is to give them some motion that won't hurt them. I don't want to present this as the end-all, be-all, but it's an answer."

The device works best for patients who will put the stress of routine movement on the device, such as patients with rheumatoid arthritis, she said.

Though Slagle still has rheumatoid arthritis in her back, which she treats with medication, she said life has improved greatly since re-ceiving her wrist implant.

She likes being able to hold a glass without using both hands.

No longer does she have to rely on others to perform the simplest tasks.

"I pretty much do about anything I think I'm big enough to do," Slagle said. "I now cut my own meat. That, I couldn't do. I'm pretty much back to normal.

"I just started going to water aerobics and walk around the mall with my weights.

"Look at my hands. Aren't they beautiful?"

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