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Pain and Inflammation

Living with Arthritis: It Can Happen to Anyone

Spencer O'Brien
Spencer O'Brien

Canadian Olympic snowboarder and two-time world champion Spencer O’Brien on her experience as a world class athlete living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

At the age of 25, in her best shape ever, Canadian Olympic snowboarder and two-time world champion Spencer O’Brien was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Months before the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, O’Brien feared her athletic career was over. With the right treatment and therapies, she was able to not only continue to pursue her dream of being a professional snowboarder, but to be one of the best in the world. Mediaplanet spoke with O’Brien about her experience as a world-class athlete living with RA.

Autoimmune conditions such as RA can be extremely difficult to detect and diagnose. What was your diagnosis experience like? 

It took several months to get diagnosed from the onset of symptoms. As an athlete, when it comes to injuries, we work very much on schedules. If you break a bone it’s three months off, if you have ACL surgery it’s nine months off. Being unable to snowboard and having no idea what was wrong with me was very challenging mentally. It started with small aches and pains that gradually worsened. I attributed them to just getting older and doing a high-impact sport for so many years. I kept getting very odd joint injuries and eventually my doctors were able to pinpoint exactly what was going on. By that point I was pretty incapacitated physically, so it was a huge relief to receive a diagnosis.  

How do you balance your demanding athletic career with the struggles of RA? 

It’s been a journey to find the right medication and regimen that works for me, but after lots of trial and error and support from my doctors and physiotherapists, I found a formula that works for me. Most of the time it’s just listening to my body and respecting when it’s time to rest and when it’s time to push my body.

How has RA affected your daily life?

It was a huge adjustment at first, but now that I’ve figured it out and am on the right medication, I feel that I’m able to live a very normal life that reflects my age and athleticism and not my disease. There are still flare-ups from time to time and fatigue hits me harder than most people but I’ve learned to adapt and to take the flare-ups as friendly reminders of how lucky I am to still do what I do. 

Has your diagnosis affected your mental health? If so, how do you seek support?

Absolutely. I’ve struggled with depression throughout my career, especially during the time leading up to my diagnosis and with various injuries. I’m learning how to ask for help when I need it and I utilize resources like therapy more often. 

What wisdom would you share with those who have also been diagnosed with RA? 

Be an advocate for your health. You know your body better than anyone and sometimes you’ll have to fight to have your voice heard. Don’t be afraid to speak up and to push if you feel like something isn’t right or needs adjusting. Learning to stand up for my health was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.

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