“My joints feel like lead, and I can be in such pain I can sometimes be physically sick.”
There’s no one type of arthritis.
“Arthritis isn't just one thing” says Anisur Rahman, professor of rheumatology at University College London. “The term 'arthritis' implies having problems with the joints. So what people generally understand as arthritis is where a person suffers symptoms of joint pain. But there are lots of conditions in which your joints can give you problems.
“Firstly, there's osteoarthritis, which is wear and tear of the joints, which tends to happen in older people. Most people will have an older relative who will have a bit of arthritis. That's what people think of as arthritis. Then there's a whole other type of arthritis that occurs in younger people. It's much rarer, and it's not wear and tear. It's where your immune system starts to attack your own body. The immune system attacks the joints, making them inflamed and causing pain.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is probably the most well-known version of that, but there are other types as well. And there are a number of different auto-immune disorders, all with different names, all of which can cause inflammation in the joints.”
And “aches and pains” are not the same as arthritis.
“Most people get aches and pains sometimes. Some people are hyper-mobile, for example – they're double jointed. Some people get aches related to sports or poor sleep or depression and so on. And in most cases, those are not arthritis.
“The amount of people with rheumatoid arthritis in the UK is about 1%. It's a 1 in 100 type of disease. But! There are some clues which make it more likely. One of those is swelling of the joints. If you have hot, red swollen joints and you're feeling very stiff and generally unwell – and if the symptoms vary from day to day – these are more telling factors suggesting you could have that type of arthritis.
“And that's when you need to go and see a doctor. With tests, it's usually pretty accurate to diagnose who has this type of arthritis or not.”
– Professor Anisur Rahman
Your self-esteem can take a hit.
“Life changed instantly, my world was turned upside down. At 18 I’d gone from being a fit athlete, playing football and skiing, to feeling like an old woman ready for the scrapyard. My dreams were temporarily put on hold.
“Looking back I sunk into depression. There was not a day that I wasn’t in pain. I'd got used to just staring at the ceiling, trying to think through the pain. What did I do to deserve something like this? Is this now my existence?
“Chronic illness is a life sentence. Isolation followed quite quickly after diagnosis, my self-esteem went from 10 to 0 over night. I rarely saw my friends; I hid away grieving for the outgoing and adventurous, positive person I once was.
“Over time I slowly dealt with days and the disease better, I’d get out more, I would push myself to make the most of the days and my life. The days where I was in less pain than normal I'd start catching up with friends and going out, but at any time the arthritis would make itself heard and I'd often return home. Over the years I’ve learnt how to cope; you’ve got to learn, otherwise the pain swallows you up.
“Around a year ago I finally came to terms with my illness. I am no longer grieving for the person I left behind; I am in awe of the woman I have become”.
– Francesca Blunt
Diagnosis can be tricky.
“The journey to my diagnosis was very complicated. I was officially diagnosed at 18 years old but I had suffered with joint pain since age 7. The flare-up which led to my diagnosis started in September 2010, while I was at a specialist music boarding school, studying for my A-levels. It began with extreme tiredness and pain and stiffness in my joints for about an hour in the mornings. I put it down to the stress of school and music college applications.
“By Christmas 2010, I was finding it a real challenge to dress myself and my mum, concerned by this, sent me to my GP, who referred me to a rheumatologist. Fast-forward to February 2011 and I was essentially paralysed from the neck down. I was unable to feed, bathe, and dress myself. I needed my parents to help me to the bathroom and I needed a wheelchair. I had a barrage of tests, testing for multiple conditions. It wasn’t until I was admitted into hospital due to how seriously ill I was that I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
“I was in hospital for 10 days, and the severe inflammation in my body had caused me to have fluid on my lungs as well. I was immediately started on treatment of strong steroids, a drug called methotrexate, and strong pain relief to attempt to bring my arthritis under control. Despite how unwell I was, to receive a diagnosis was a great relief and that meant I could finally receive the treatment that I needed.”
– Carrie Thompson