A new implant for arthritic thumb joints is available on the NHS. Retired art teacher Bob Stafford, 70, from Wilbarston, Northamptonshire, was one of the first to benefit, as he tells ADRIAN MONTI.
After 35 years as a school teacher, I decided to fulfil my long-held ambition of setting up my own pottery and ceramics studio.
But soon after starting my new venture seven years ago, I began suffering shooting pains in my thumbs. I took painkillers and used ibuprofen gels, but nothing really worked.
As the pain in my left thumb worsened and the movement became more restricted, I decided to see my GP. Everyday tasks such as unscrewing lids and tying my shoelaces became a struggle, and I realised my thumbs had effectively worn out.
Bob Stafford, 70, from Northamptonshire, was one of the first patients to receive an NHS implant to treat arthritis in his thumb
At the start of 2013, I was referred to the arthritis clinic at my local hospital, where X-rays revealed osteoarthritis in the base of both thumbs. I joked it must have been caused by pressing all those drawing pins into school noticeboards over the years.
By now I was struggling to work in my studio. Handling heavy, cold clay made my thumbs even more painful.
After my diagnosis, I had cortisone injections into the joints to ease the pain by reducing the swelling. But six months later the effects had worn off.
My GP said there were two surgical options. The first involved removing a bone in the joint, which would stop the pain of bone rubbing against bone and restore movement, although my thumbs would be left with little strength.
The second was fusing the thumb joint using metal and screws so it was rigid. This would make it stronger and pain-free, but would not allow any movement — which would mean no more pottery.
The retired art teacher said that after the procedure in 2016 it took more than a year of building up strength and flexing for it to feel normal again. However, the pain had also vanished. (Piuctured: Bob doing pottery in his studio)
So, I set about doing my own research and soon found Chris Bainbridge, a hand surgeon at the Royal Derby Hospital. My GP referred me for an NHS appointment there in December 2015.
Mr Bainbridge told me about a new operation being trialled where they put a synthetic cartilage implant into the joint where the natural cartilage had worn away.
It would restore my thumb to its original powers, meaning I could return to the pottery wheel.
As no bone would be removed or fused, the surgeon said I could have one of the more traditional operations if the trial failed.
I was delighted to go for surgery on my left thumb in March 2016. I was awake but sedated during the operation, which took less than an hour. I went home the same day with my arm bandaged up, but it didn’t hurt much.
After ten days, the bandages were taken off and my lower arm was put into a plaster cast for eight weeks — the doctors wanted to ensure the joint was fully healed before any movement was tried.
Once the cast was removed, I began physiotherapy: at first once a week, and then every month, for a year.
Bob, pictured making a pot out of clay, said the operation itself took less than an hour
The arthritic pain had gone straight away, but it took more than a year of building up strength and flexibility for it to feel ‘normal’. By then, I could even help my son with his joinery business.
I had my right thumb done in March last year, but this time, following the success of the trial, I didn’t have to have my hand in a cast. I was the first person to have both thumbs treated this way.
I celebrated by throwing a pot for Mr Bainbridge as a thank you.
Chris Bainbridge is a consultant hand surgeon at Royal Derby Hospital.
Osteoarthritis in the thumb is extremely common as we age. It happens when the cartilage covering the ends of the bones where the thumb meets the palm gets worn away. Bone then rubs against bone, causing inflammation and pain.
Genetics is the cause, rather than overuse. But if you develop arthritis, using the joint will make the pain more severe — and it’s hard not to use our thumbs. As the discomfort worsens, strength and dexterity suffer, making everyday activities remarkably tough.