Football legend John Elway talks about his little-known, debilitating hand disorder

The NFL quarterback Hall of Famer has battled the progressive medical condition for 15 years.

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By Kerry Breen

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway had a pro playing career spanning 16 years and five Super Bowls and now serves as general manager of the Denver Broncos. But for many years, he has been fighting off the field with a debilitating medical condition that affects his hands.

Fifteen years ago, Elway was diagnosed with Dupuytren's contracture, also known as Viking's Disease, a progressive medical condition that takes years to develop and leads to hand disability. At its worst, he couldn't pick up or hold a football.

The condition causes knots of tissue to form under the skin of the palms, eventually creating a thick cord that can pull one or more fingers into a bent position, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When Elway was first diagnosed, he said both his ring fingers were constricted and he had become unable to pick up or hold a football.

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"When I saw my hand doctor, the only option was surgery," he said. "I wasn't interested in more surgeries. I've had so many surgeries during my playing career. At that point in time I didn't want to have another one."

As time went on, the condition only got worse, so he returned to his doctor and learned about newer, non-surgical options that could straighten his fingers. Two years ago, he had the non-surgical option done on one hand; he had the second one done a year later.

Both hands have returned to their normal state, Elway said, but there is always a possibility that his fingers could constrict again.

After his own encounter with Dupuytren's contracture, John Elway is urging people who may show signs of the condition to get checked out. Jamie Squire / Getty Images

"There are all different types of treatment available, it's just important to get to your hand doctor and catch it early," he explained. "If they anyone is experiencing a contraction in the fingers, and it's limiting the things they can do and it's sore, that's the time to go and see the doctor."

Elway is now involved with the "Facts on Hand" campaign to help raise awareness of the hand disorder. It's estimated that 16 million Americans in the United States may have the condition -- but most people aren't aware that it's something to ask about.

Men are more likely to be affected by Dupuytren's contracture than women. The condition typically appears in people over the age of 40, but it can occur as young as their early 20s, the Mayo Clinic said. The ring finger and pinky finger are most commonly affected by the condition. In early stages, people with the condition may notice lumps or nodules on their palms. Eventually, the fingers are locked into a curled position, so it's difficult to grasp objects and do regular fine motor manipulations with the hands.

"It's a rather common condition, and a lot of people do have it, but they don't get it diagnosed," Elway said. "If anyone is concerned they might have it, they should go see a hand specialist. If you're diagnosed with it, I want people to realize that there are options to treat it."

Doctors aren't quite sure what causes the condition, but there appears to be a genetic component. People of Northern European descent are most often affected and it can run in families.

"It is hereditary and it also called the 'Viking's Disease,'" he said. "If you have a Norwegian background, you have a higher chance of developing it. That's a possibility for me, but nobody else in my family has had it. I'm not sure if me playing football has played a part too."