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For One Patient, Relieving Hip Pain Required a Role Reversal

Two women who had the same hip surgery exercising pain-free

Amy Boyer has been a physical therapist for 19 years. She knows the limits of physical therapy for treating pain. She knows when surgery is likely the best option, and she refers her patients to UVA for surgery all the time. But when her own hip pain became a nuisance, Boyer found herself adopting the same mindset of many of her patients: Surgery was the absolute last resort for relieving hip pain.

“I’m very active and I enjoy running, but last spring I began noticing some anterior hip pain,” she says. “Being a therapist, I knew to take six weeks off from running. I tried massage therapy and chiropractic care. I did plenty of stretching. I did all of the things I knew to do and it wasn’t getting any better. But I resisted the idea of surgery. I thought: ‘This sounds similar to what a lot of my patients talk about, and it really stinks.’”

When Slowing Down Stopped Working

Boyer continued eliminating activities she loved — no more running, no more coaching youth basketball, no more elliptical. But it was the nagging pain at night that finally got her to turn to her colleague, orthopedic surgeon Winston Gwathmey, MD, for advice.

“Initially, I tried to avoid Dr. Gwathmey as much as possible, because I knew what that meant,” Boyer says. “But it got to a point at which I could not get a full night’s sleep, because my hip hurt so terribly. I finally decided to get an MRI, and I asked Dr. Gwathmey to take a peek at it.”

What Gwathmey discovered was an abnormality in Boyer’s hip socket called femoroacetabular impingement (FAI), a condition in which the ball and socket don’t fit together as they should. This abnormality causes tears and deterioration of the soft tissues in the hip joint and, left unchecked, can lead to arthritis. To repair the damage in her hip and relieve the pain, Gwathmey recommended Boyer have arthroscopic surgery.

Relieving Hip Pain with Arthroscopic Hip Surgery

Arthroscopic surgery, a procedure using small, keyhole incisions, has long been the standard treatment for shoulder and knee injuries. But only in the last two decades have surgeons started using this method for hip conditions like FAI.

“The use of arthroscopy for hip conditions had been limited by anatomy,” says Gwathmey. “The hip is not as easy to access. The joint is super tight, and it’s deep inside the body, so clinicians had to develop ways to safely dislocate the ball from the socket to make this procedure possible.”

Once surgeons can get to the joint, they can then reshape the bone by shaving away any bumps or abnormalities. This restores the hip’s fluid motion and repairs damage to the soft tissue.

This type of hip surgery is low risk. Typically, patients can go home on the same day. Recovery, however, takes some time. “Recovery takes around six weeks, followed by months of rehabilitation to regain strength and mobility,” says Boyer.

Role Reversal: From Caregiver to Patient

Although Boyer understood the ins and outs of the procedure and knew it was her best shot for relieving hip pain, she was still none too eager to have surgery. “I joked with Dr. Gwathmey that I really don’t like being the patient,” she says. “For 19 years, I’ve been providing the care and for the first time, the roles are reversed.”

To ease her mind, Boyer turned to someone she knew could relate. Diddy Morris had been one of her longtime patients and had been through the same procedure two years prior.

“When I knew I was going to have to have the surgery, I called Diddy and asked her to meet,” says Boyer. “I said, ‘I know I was your therapist, but talk to me like I’m a patient. Tell me everything you know.’ That conversation allowed me to learn about the procedure from a different standpoint. Diddy was so supportive and kind and gave me such great advice.”

From Patient to Friend: Recovery Support

Boyer wasn’t the only one who had a role reversal. Helping Boyer gave Morris a chance to give back.

“Amy was actually the one who convinced me that I should talk to a doctor about surgery,” says Morris. “After I had the procedure, I saw her twice a week for therapy. She was very perceptive. She understood how important running was for me, and how it felt not having that social and emotional outlet. She helped me so much during my recovery. It was nice to be able to pay it forward.”

Morris loaned Boyer her exercise bike during her recovery and offered tips on gadgets that made it easier to maneuver on crutches. And through their shared experience, they developed a friendship.

Today, both women are now back to doing the activities they love.

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From Patient to Empathetic Provider

And Boyer says the experience has changed the way she relates to her patients.

“Now I can honestly say to the patient, ‘I know what you’re going through. I just had this surgery, and here’s how it worked for me.’ It adds another level of comfort and confidence for them to know that their therapist has gone through something similar. Not that I would recommend that therapists get the same surgery as their patients! But it has been a positive thing for me and has impacted how I care for my patients.”

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