Members of the U.S. Armed Forces bravely put their lives on the line for their country, regularly putting themselves at risk of both physical and mental injuries that can create lifelong scars. Some of these occupational hazards are obvious, while others are lesser known and cry out for more attention.

A 2016 United Health Foundation survey of one million veterans and civilians found that the former group was more likely than the latter to contract arthritis (25 percent for vets compared to 23 percent for civilians), cardiovascular disease (10 percent versus 7 percent), cancers (11 percent versus 10 percent) and illnesses that leave them functionally impaired (26 percent versus 21 percent).

Along those same lines, a North Carolina Medical Journal study concluded that osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of military discharge during armed conflict, second only to combat wounds.

With more active-duty personnel and veterans developing arthritis as a result of their service, advocates are now asking Congress to increase funding for more research into potential methods for combating the disease.

ACR lobbying CDMRP to designate arthritis a research subject

In total, arthritis encompasses more than 100 diseases, including both degenerative and inflammatory varieties. The inflammatory forms typically involve immune-system disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Considering the types of physical activity mandated by military life, no one should be too surprised by the sheer prevalence of the disease among those who serve. The most susceptible service members are those who suffer knee injuries while deployed, with one recent study showing that one in five military members with a knee injury develop radiographic arthritis before the age of 30, cutting short the careers of many heroes still in the prime of their life.

"[Young veterans with arthritis] will be looking at a knee replacement in their early 40s versus a peer in the civilian world that may not have been subjected to a mechanical injury getting a knee replacement in their 60s or 70s," Dr. Colin Edgerton, chair of the American College of Rheumatology's Committee on Rheumatological Care, told the Military Times.

A former Army rheumatologist, Dr. Edgerton spent his time in the military treating soldiers with musculoskeletal disorders and, as part of his duties, had to judge whether those with arthritis needed to be medically discharged. Witnessing first-hand the impact the disease had on service members' lives and careers turned Dr. Edgerton into a fierce advocate for arthritis prevention.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.""The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

"It's about stopping those injuries before they occur so that that person is not looking at early joint replacement surgery and disability at a point in life where they otherwise would not have had that," he said.

Dr. Edgerton and the American College of Rheumatology are hoping legislators will fund research that may uncover new methods of prevention and treatment. More specifically, they're hoping to have arthritis listed as a "line item" in the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs budget for fiscal-year 2020, which would mark the disease as a research subject worthy of sharper focus and increased funding.

"If there was a dedicated line in that research budget for arthritis, that would go a long way toward establishing kind of a sustainable focus on arthritis, since it is such a high-impact disease in the military population," Dr. Edgerton stressed.

Arthritis was previously listed as an area of interest in the Army's 2018 Medical Research and Material Command program, but only received roughly $6 million in research funding. By contrast, in 2019 the CDMRP allocated $130 million for breast cancer research.

Though the Congressional Arthritis Caucus made a failed attempt to have the disease included as a line item in the 2019 CDMRP, Dr. Edgerton hopes 2020 will be the year Congress finally funds research into this career-killing and life-altering ailment.

"Just three years ago we kind of recognized that this is something that needed to be done and each year we … get more support," he noted optimistically. "So we hope this is the year that we actually get it done."