Our nation’s military service members are willing to sacrifice everything for their country.  In return, these members deserve the very best treatment for chronic conditions here at home.

Arthritis – a serious, chronic and progressively degenerative condition affecting the body’s joints and musculoskeletal tissues – is one of the top reasons active duty personnel are discharged from service and the leading cause of disability among U.S. veterans today.  It is also the second leading cause of discharge from the U.S. Army, and so prevalent that one of every three veterans lives with it – compared with one in five Americans in the general population. 

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Our organizations are committed to advocating for the disproportionate number of military service members impacted by arthritis and related diseases.  

Although arthritis in the military has been an issue for decades, we are just beginning to understand the enormous physical, financial and societal costs that result from the everyday strain on the musculoskeletal system that our service members endure.  In the truest sense, arthritis is a silent enemy – many active duty personnel keep their condition to themselves for fear it will affect their careers.   Scores of veterans suffer alone without receiving necessary and life-changing care. A 10-year review of arthritis among active duty personnel found the prevalence of osteoarthritis (OA) to be 26 percent higher in the under-20 age group, compared with the same age group in the general population.  Data from the Army’s Physical Evaluation Board revealed that among permanently disabling conditions, arthritis was the most common unfitting condition with 94.4 percent of cases attributed to combat injury. 

It’s easy to see how so many of our service members and veterans are suffering.  Years of carrying 60-plus pound packs and weapons can injure joints.  Shock waves from explosions also cause joint damage, which in turn may lead to particularly disabling, post-traumatic OA. 

While our veterans contend with the physical after-effects of their service, healthcare providers and researchers are working to figure out how to best manage their care.  We know that many veterans injured early in their careers suffer from reduced quality of life and will require years of ongoing therapy, medications and potential surgeries.  We also know that arthritis is responsible for rising Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs health costs because of its impact on disease management, joint pain, loss of function and joint replacement surgery. 

Arthritis research has been funded since Fiscal Year 2009 in the Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program within the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP).  Despite the significant impact arthritis has on our service members, arthritis-related clinical care research is competing with 37 other authorized topics, so DoD funding is not guaranteed.  

It’s time for Congress to stand up for service members and veterans with arthritis by authorizing the creation of a stand-alone arthritis program within the CDMRP.  Ensuring a funding pool of $20 million for arthritis research would allow researchers and providers to meet the growing needs of active military personnel and veterans who have irreversible and lifelong health care needs and disabilities related to their military service.

Through funded research, our goal is to identify better joint injury management protocols to reduce the downstream effects of joint injury and osteoarthritis, particularly in younger patients.  Such a preventive approach reflects a key principle of osteopathic medicine, which seeks to treat the whole person and where possible, prevent an acute issue from turning into a long-term, chronic one. More research on post-traumatic OA, for example, can lead to the development of interventions at the time of injury that can mitigate the impact of the injury and possibly prevent osteoarthritis altogether.  

Service members often experience joint injury during military training, and continued military service activities on the injured joint can accelerate the arthritis. Our active duty personnel need education and interventions to help lessen these joint injuries. 

We also hope to find answers related to the genetics and epigenetics of rheumatoid arthritis, which could lead to more effective treatments, with fewer side effects, for all patients living with this disease.

Research can’t turn back the clock for our injured service members, but research can support better prevention strategies, interventions and treatments that are crucial to reducing the number of active duty personnel and veterans suffering from arthritis.

Our service members and veterans living with arthritis have answered the call to serve our country – now it’s time for Congress to ensure their sacrifices are not forgotten and they no longer suffer in silence.

Von Feldt is the president of the American College of Rheumatology.   Palmer is the president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation.  Becher is the president of the American Osteopathic Association.