Could Pope Francis' health affect his travels?

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Could Pope Francis' health affect his travels?

For someone who openly admits he doesn't like to travel, Pope Francis hasn't done too badly. Over the past nine years he's visited 56 countries: that's an average of six papal trips a year. 

And there are more to come. Or are there? 

It’s no secret that Pope Francis has been suffering from acute knee pain for some time now. He’s mentioned it openly on more than one occasion – and even joked about it...

“I have an inflamed ligament in my knee. It's something that comes and goes. They say it only happens to old people, so I don't understand why it's happening to me!”

Inflamed ligaments are mostly the result of injury, stress, or simply old age. They provoke the kind of knee pain a lot of people in their 80's can identify with very well. And Pope Francis is 85. Doctors call it “rheumatoid arthritis”, or “osteoarthritis”, and recommend not walking or standing for too long. 

Which is fine – unless you're the Pope and you're travelling to some foreign country, in which case that kind of limited mobility could be a problem.  

At the end of his visit to Malta in early April, many people were shocked to see Pope Francis boarding the plane with the help of a special elevator, instead of using the stairs. Again, he tried to make light of it when he spoke to journalists on the flight back to Rome...

'My health is a bit temperamental. I have this problem with my knee which means I have difficulty walking. It's a bit annoying, but it's getting better. At least I can go places. A fortnight ago I couldn't do anything.”

Unfortunately, Pope Francis' optimism wasn't shared by his doctors. During Holy Week, they advised him to drastically limit his activities – meaning he couldn't preside over the Easter Vigil ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, or the Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday. 

Recently, he's made a point of remaining seated during all his public events. Obeying doctor's orders may be good for his knee, but it clearly makes him feel personally uncomfortable...

“Please excuse me if I greet you while staying seated. My knee isn't getting any better, and I can't stand for too long. I'm sorry about this. Thank you.” 

So how might this affect future papal travels? 

It's a question that will have to be answered soon, because there are several overseas visits already in the pipeline. Some of them will be particularly demanding: like the one to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to South Sudan, scheduled for July. Or the trip to Canada, which is being planned for later this year. 

Knee treatment specialists themselves don't always agree on the most effective way to deal with osteoarthritis – which is essentially the result of the protective cartilage over the bone wearing down over time. In some cases, they say, the best solution is a surgical implant... 

Orthopaedic surgeon
'Having a hip or knee implant done today is not an operation that requires general anesthetic. A local anesthetic is enough to put the interested area to sleep. It only lasts an hour, or less. So it's nothing exceptional.”

The operation itself may be nothing exceptional, but in Pope Francis' case it might be a bit more complicated, insofar as the problem with his knee could also be connected to the sciatica, or nerve pain in his hip, that he's been suffering from for years...

Orthopaedic surgeon
“The Holy Father may have pain in his knee, which is what everyone is talking about, and this pain could be caused by coxarthrosis. But it could also be caused by something else, like arthritis in his hip.”

Hip replacement or knee implant – surgery is always an option. But it's not a decision to be taken lightly. Especially when the patient is 85 years of age… and a pope who needs to be on the move. 

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