All this week in support of World Arthritis Day we teamed up with Arthritis Care, the UK's largest organisation working with and for all people with arthritis.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not just the elderly who can be affected by arthritis, a condition which can affect people of all ages. In the UK alone there are an estimated 12,000 children living with arthritis and around 27,000 people under the age of 25.
One of those young people is Keri McFarlane (pictured), from Northern Ireland, who was diagnosed with arthritis at 21. Here she tells in her own words how the condition has impacted her life and how she manages on a daily basis:
Six years ago I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was in my third year at university in England studying to be a primary school teacher. I woke up one morning to find that my thumb joints were swollen, stiff and sore and I struggled to pull on my socks.
This happened most mornings over the next couple of weeks but I didn’t think anything of it. Then my elbows started to swell and were very painful. I could not lift my arms to brush my hair and it was really difficult to dress myself. I decided I needed to see my GP.
He thought the reason why my arms hurt was probably because I was ‘sleeping funny’. I went back a month later as my symptoms persisted and my knees had now started to swell too. He asked me if I was inactive and maybe I needed to exercise more.
By May 2010 one of my knees was swollen every day. My feet were starting to swell and I found it difficult to walk. I was determined to get help as I knew my own body and something was not right. I went back to the surgery and saw a different GP. This was the first time arthritis was mentioned. I was shocked; surely I was too young to have arthritis? I always assumed arthritis was for older people.
I was referred to a rheumatologist and by then I was really struggling. More of my joints were swollen, stiff and sore it was not going away. Steroid injections worked in the short term but eventually wore off and soon I was in pain and bedridden. I could hardly move and tears would trickle down my face as I used every inch of energy and effort to move my heavy, painful, swollen limbs.
It was unbearable. I was eventually diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Reality set in and I cried. How could this be happening to me? I was only in my early 20s! However, I had high hopes and thought I would take medication and feel better again soon.
Finishing my degree was tough, but in 2013, with the support from my rheumatologist, university lecturers and family I was able to complete my degree. I graduated with a 2:1 in Primary Education with Early Years BA Hons with QTS. I felt a real sense of achievement.
After I graduated I was not well enough to work as I was still trying to find a medication that could stabilise my condition.
Arthritis can be quite isolating. No one can really understand and relate to what you are going through unless they have the condition too. It can be frustrating when people see a young person like me sitting smiling, they think I look well and there is nothing wrong with me. Arthritis can be a silent illness. People cannot see the pain or fatigue I am feeling on the inside.
My granny saw an ad in the newspaper for an Arthritis Care course. I didn’t know anyone else who had arthritis so I thought this would be a great way of meeting others in the same position. After the course I was asked to become a training volunteer and deliver courses all over Northern Ireland. I leapt at the chance to continue my involvement with the charity.
It was daunting at first to work with adults instead of children, but I soon found my feet and thoroughly enjoyed delivering the self-management courses. It is so rewarding to see the impact the course you’ve delivered has made on people’s lives. I have also learnt a lot about how to self-manage my own condition through the courses.
I have had to put my career of being a primary school teacher on hold for now because of my condition. There are many disadvantages from living with arthritis: pain, fatigue, nausea, I cannot do things I used to, difficulties getting on/off the toilet, travelling long distances, sitting for long periods of time in cinema/car, I have to pace myself, taking medication (to name but a few).
Arthritis really has changed my life, but not all for the bad. I will never take so many things for granted such as walking with ease and getting dressed again. I have made new friends and gained many new skills through volunteering. It is very rewarding. I have also had so many new experiences. Becoming involved with Arthritis Care has meant I have something to fulfil my time and get stuck into.
I also now volunteer as Chairperson of Coleraine branch. Becoming involved with a branch has helped me stay active by playing games such as Boccia, New Age Kurling and chair-based exercise. I have thoroughly enjoyed working alongside and building friendships with fellow training volunteers and my branch committee members. I love focusing on how we can continue to build our branch and helping it to grow.
It took several years to find a medication that controlled my condition. I have now been taking biologic injections for 2.5 years. They have stabilised my condition and have allowed me to finally stop taking steroids.
Although being diagnosed with arthritis at 21 was unexpected, I always say it could be worse. I’m quite a positive person and I just get on with things. I am fortunate to live in a generation where there are great medications available that can help my condition. Volunteering with Arthritis Care has kept me going and I believe it has helped me to stay positive.
I have hope for the future that things will get better.
We are extremely grateful to Keri for sharing her story, which will hopefully inspire other people to see that although arthritis will affect your life, it need not control it. Arthritis Care is a fantastic resource for anyone diagnosed with arthritis. Its website is packed with information, advice, help and support for anyone living with arthritis and it also has a free and confidential national helpline number on 0808 800 4050. Becoming a member gives access to the charity's full range of UK-wide services and helps support its invaluable work.