The Surprising Benefit of Locked Joints

Throughout my life I have been fighting the immobility that rheumatoid arthritis can cause. Especially during my childhood I remember hours and hours of joint and range of motion exercises. It felt like a constant battle cry: “must not let me get locked joints!”

Unfortunately, I have had severe RA for nearly 40 years now and have accumulated significant joint damage. Many of my joints have very limited motion and several are fairly locked into place. I’ve long regretted my joint limitations as it has made a lot of activities more difficult or created disabilities. But I think I may have been too hasty, because recently I considered that there may be surprising, unexpected benefits to a locked joint.

Knee Replacement

The story begins with my knee replacements at age 15. While the surgeries greatly reduced my pain from RA, I struggled against scar tissue that limited the range of motion I was able to achieve in recovery. I even had a scar tissue removal surgery, but it just grew back. My right knee had some motion, but my left knee only had a few degrees—it was virtually locked.

While I couldn’t climb mountains or run, my knees got me through more than 20 years. A few years ago I had to undergo a revision on the left knee replacement due to an infection.

Surprisingly, my surgeon was able to greatly improve the mobility of my knee with much more flexion and near-perfect straightening. I finally had the knee that I’d always wanted!
Unfortunately, I needed a healthy set of quadriceps muscles to really make the knee work and after 20 years of atrophy they just did not fully come back. One of my quad muscles is too small and weak to help me straighten the leg. While I can extend, I can’t hold the leg straight. This means it can buckle while standing and walking, if I am not careful. When I do a leg lift, my knee bends because I cannot hold it straight. My lower leg falls when I slide it off the bed in the morning.

Getting used to locked joints

In my daily life, it isn’t a big deal. I have learned to cope. But I find it surprising that I miss my locked knee joint! Sure, it was a challenge, but it also was super stable when I was standing and walking. I could lift my leg and was just used to having it locked. I wasn’t afraid it would give out on me, because it had nowhere to go! Strange what we can get used to!

While locked joints obviously restrict motion and cause limitations, they can also be incredibly stable and supportive. I suppose it is a catch-22 in my case. While I always wanted more motion, I don’t have the muscles to support it. Of course, the best answer is not to have RA, joint damage, and muscle atrophy! But that is sadly not my situation.
If I should need any other joint replacement revision surgeries, I’ll instead ask the surgeon to keep the same amount of joint mobility, if at all possible. I know that my muscles and other soft tissues have adapted to my condition and it’s not reasonable to ask them to flex that much to adjust to expanded mobility. For my situation, I’d prefer sticking to my current abilities as much as possible. I certainly don’t want to lose anything, but also need the stability that my locked joints provide.

It’s definitely a surprise to have experienced the downside of more joint mobility! It was not expected or in the surgical plan, but I’m enjoying a healthy knee and can’t have any regrets about that.

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