A commando who underwent five operations on his spine has told how he can finally play football again with his kids after a medical cannabis prescription ended years of crippling back pain.
Rik Swaine, 40s, from Wales, suffers from a chronic inflammatory arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis which was aggravated by carrying 120lbs-army kit through danger zones across the world – leaving him immobile and bedridden for weeks at a time.
The dad-of-four said: ‘I’d spent years lugging heavy kit around hostile locations. One day I could be climbing up a treacherous mountain, the next I could be wading through swamps in a snake-infested jungle.
‘People underestimate the amount of gear a soldier carries around, and what the long-term effects might be.
‘Your weaponry and rations all add up and all that heavy lifting takes its toll. In Sierra Leone, it wasn’t unusual for me to have 120 lbs of gear strapped to my back.
Rik Swaine (pictured), 40s, from Wales, suffers from a chronic inflammatory arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis which was aggravated by carrying 120lbs-army kit through danger zones across the world – leaving him immobile and bedridden for weeks at a time
In total, Rik (pictured in hospital), underwent five operations on his spine, five on his knees and two on his shoulders — but each time the pain returned more severe than before
Rik (left carrying a gun) said: ‘I’d spent years lugging heavy kit around hostile locations. One day I could be climbing up a treacherous mountain, the next I could be wading through swamps in a snake-infested jungle’
‘After eight years serving in elite forces, the inflammation had spread from my back to my knees and I just couldn’t take any more punishment. I had to quit the job I loved because of the excruciating pain.’
Ankylosing Spondylitis causes lower back pain and stiffness in the early stages, but over time, it can lead to fusion of the spinal vertebrae and cause significant mobility issues.
Some people with AS experience severe, persistent back and hip pain and stiffness. Others have symptoms – or flare-ups – that come and go. Patients are encouraged to engage in exercise and sports to preserve mobility.
Rik quit the army and switched to private security duties including guarding diplomats in Iraq, and fighting Somali pirates in the Indian ocean.
‘My kit was only a fraction of the weight I carried in the army, and because I didn’t have to cover long distances, there was less toll on my knees. Even so, I still suffered flare-ups of back pain meaning I’d be out of action for days or weeks at a time
‘I ended up doing 10 years on and off in Iraq and other troublespots but had to quit because the pain became too much.’
He was prescribed dozens of medications which did nothing to end his torment. In total, he underwent five operations on his spine, five on his knees and two on his shoulders — but each time the pain returned more severe than before.
‘A flare-up might last a few days or it might last a few weeks. I hoped things would get better in time but clearly the damage was already done and my condition kept deteriorating. The pain and inflammation spread through my entire body.
‘There were times it felt like poison was running through my veins and I was unable to get out of bed.
‘Sometimes the pain would last for days and sometimes it would go on for months. I became completely demoralised and was close to giving up all hope.
‘Even if I struggled out of bed it was impossible for me to play with my kids. I remember my toddler son asking me one day if they could go on my shoulders and I had to say, ‘no, I’m sorry but I can’t.’
‘I couldn’t even muck around with them in the ballpit. It felt like life wasn’t worth living at times.’
Rik (pictured with two of his children) has returned to employment as a health and safety worker and can now enjoy better quality time with his kids aged 8-24
Rik (picture skiing) has called on the NHS to make prescriptions of medical cannabis more widely available for sufferers of chronic pain, defined as pain which lasts more than three months
In 2018 after reading a newspaper article about medical cannabis, Rik reached out to a private clinic which granted him a prescription.
‘In the space of five minutes my life totally changed, and my pain began to dissolve. No medicine I’d had before came near it. It felt like a miracle — but the bad news was that it wasn’t free.
‘Because the prescription wasn’t available on the NHS, it was costing me £400-a-month — money I simply didn’t have because I was struggling financially.’
Then last year Rik’s case was taken-up by the IAMBILLY Foundation, which works with global medical cannabis manufacturers to source free medicine for people suffering chronic pain.
The charity is led by Charlotte Caldwell whose epileptic son Billy changed the law when he was granted the first NHS prescription for medical cannabis in 2018 after medications his mum flew in from Canada were seized at Heathrow.
Currently, around 25,000 people in the UK are being treated with medical cannabis for conditions including chronic pain, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, though the vast majority of prescriptions have been issued through expensive private healthcare with patients struggling to get access to the medicines via the NHS.
Thanks to the foundation, pharmaceutical manufacturer Cellen stepped forward at the beginning of the year to offer Rik a free programme of its medication Satoline.
Rik has since returned to employment as a health and safety worker and can now enjoy better quality time with his kids aged 8-24.
Last night he called on the NHS to make prescriptions of medical cannabis more widely available for sufferers of chronic pain, defined as pain which lasts more than three months.
‘I am indebted to Cellen for giving me a normal life. I’m back working again and paying off my debts.
‘I can kick a ball with my kids and join in with some family fun. But I want others affected by chronic pain to enjoy the same quality of life I now have.’
Charlotte Caldwell, mother of Billy, wants the NHS to accelerate funding of medical cannabis treatments via the Refractory Epilepsy Specialist Clinical Advisory Service (RECAS) – currently the only route to public funded healthcare in these cases.
She said: ‘In the meantime, we want more medical manufacturers to come forward and provide free treatments. No manufacturer should be taking thousands of pounds from vulnerable parents so as they can keep their chronically ill child alive.’
Graham Woodward, Clinical Director at Cellen’s online Leva Clinic said: ‘I’m delighted that Rik has got his life back with access to Satoline.
‘We want to continue supporting as many people as we can, because we believe in a world without unnecessary pain and suffering.
‘Through access to outstanding care and the latest evidence-based medicine, we hope many more people with life-limiting conditions like Rik’s will be able to turn their lives around.
‘We believe in a world without unnecessary pain and suffering by helping people access outstanding care and the latest evidence-based medicine.’