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As Kim Tate in Emmerdale, Claire King excluded her own brand of sex siren and feistiness that viewers couldn’t get enough of. But little did they realise that behind the scenes, actress Claire, now 59, was often suffering in silence.
For the soap star – who’s been in the show for 30 years – was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at just 28.
“I struggled to go to work and do the things I love, like horse-riding, because of the terrible pressure it put on my knees,” she previously said, adding, “I can certainly relate to the ‘invisible disease’ – although my symptoms don’t always show, it doesn’t mean I’m not in pain or feeling exhausted.”
Severe pain, stiff joints, and swelling… arthritis is a condition that’s usually associated with ageing. But the debilitating disease can manifest in your twenties – or even younger. 27,000 people in the UK under 25 live with a form of arthritis, and many are so distressed and embarrassed by their situation they suffer in silence.
Grand Slam tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki was diagnosed at 27 after experiencing “extreme pain in my shoulders, elbows and hands.” She has since retired from the professional circuit.
“Living with arthritis, and the pain and fatigue it can bring, can have a huge impact on quality of life, from walking to sleeping,” says Lynne Woolley, a Senior Lead for Young People and Families Services at Versus Arthritis. She adds that everyday tasks, a career, a relationship and having a family can feel unachievable for young sufferers and that raising awareness is “vital” to end stigma surrounding the condition.
Here, Dr Benjamin Ellis, consultant rheumatologist at Versus Arthritis, discusses the misconceptions around the condition…
WHAT TYPES OF ARTHRITIS AFFECT THE YOUNG?
There are over 100 different types of arthritis. Dr Ellis explains that those most likely to affect younger people are:
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) : Most commonly diagnosed in under 16s and slightly more prevalent in girls, it involves the inflammation of one or more of the body’s joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis: This auto-immune condition affects around 400,000 over 16s in the UK and is three times more common in women. It’s often genetic, but other contributing factors can be smoking and poor diet.
Psoriatic arthritis: Also inflammatory it causes the immune system to attack the body’s joints leading to damage. Often genetic, it usually affects people with the skin condition psoriasis.
Osteoarthritis: More common in older people – and in women – it can still affect the young. The body is unable to repair the wear on the joint from daily use. Genetics, joint injury and obesity can be contributing factors.
SPOT THE SIGNS
Dr Ellis, warns of the reg flags younger people should be aware of. “If you get unexplained pain in or around joints or in your spine and it doesn’t go away after a few weeks, see a health professional.
“Symptoms for most forms of arthritis include swollen, stiff, and painful joints – including in the knees, hands, feet, ankles, shoulders, elbows – often in the morning or after a nap. Also eye inflammation, warmth and redness of joints and fatigue. Pain and swelling caused by Rheumatoid arthritis is particularly noticeable in the knuckles.”
IS THERE A CURE?
“No,” says Dr Ellis. “For most people it’s a life-long condition. But there are effective treatments including tablets, injections, intravenous drips, and injections into the joints.
“The sooner you start treatment the more effective they’re likely to be. Sometimes a combination will provide the best effect but it can take months or even years of trial and error to find the right solution. If the arthritis damages a joint very badly, surgery is sometimes required, such as joint replacement.”
CAN SELF-CARE HELP?
“There are things you can do for yourself,” says Dr Ellis. “Smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, and treatments are less effective if you continue to smoke. Staying active helps keep your joints healthy.”
ANY SIDE EFFECTS OF THE MEDICATION?
“All treatments can have side effects, such as irritation of the liver, but your rheumatology team will monitor this,” says Dr Ellis. “Depending on the treatment, you may have to be careful about the amount of alcohol you drink (if you do). Some treatments interact with other medicines too, such as some antibiotics. If you want to become pregnant, you’ll need to avoid treatments that can harm the developing baby.”
‘At 26, a night out leaves me exhausted for weeks’
Marie Fay, a security advisor from Leeds, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two years ago at the age of 24.
“My symptoms started off as blood shot eyes and double vision. Initially doctors were worried it was a brain tumour – luckily that wasn’t the case. Then pains started in my hips, legs and knees, and walking became hard. Tests showed I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an auto-immune condition that causes chronic pain and fatigue. It came as a shock to the system to learn that I had arthritis as I assumed only older people got it and had no idea it could be diagnosed in someone so young.
The pain can be really debilitating, especially during a flare up. My joints suddenly feel the wrong way round and it feels abnormal to walk because of the pain. I often can’t straighten my fingers which makes day-to-day activities really difficult and everything seems 10 times more effort. I have two dogs and it’s a task to walk them, and even hoovering the house is tricky, as the hoover feels so heavy. If I go clubbing, I feel utterly exhausted for weeks afterwards – I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck the next day! – so it often doesn’t feel worth it.
Sadly I can’t predict when I’ll have a flare up, but it usually happens in the mornings when my whole body feels really stiff and my muscles ache, or if I exert myself too much. Even though I sometimes feel like I can’t enjoy being a young woman with my friends, I try to not let it stop me doing things I enjoy and I still give everything a go.
I get a blood test every fortnight (luckily I’m not afraid of needles!) and I’m on immune system suppressants (methatrexate) which work well for me, although at first the side effects were distressing – I lost hair and I’d have constant heartburn and nausea. I take the meds once a week and feel hungover the next day, but that passes. I find that some home remedies, including a nice hot bath and herbal teas, help too.
I do worry about my future. Due to the swelling and pains in my hands and arms, I feel like I would constantly be relying on a partner to do everything, especially when it comes to having children. I’m quite ambitious, I’d like to progress at work but so I’m concerned that it might affect my career because at times I feel like I may be limited in my ability. Worst case scenario for me would be needing a hip or knee replacement, but hopefully it won’t come to that.”
• For a free 12 week online programme called Let’s Move with 30 minute movement sessions created for arthritis sufferers see versusarthritis.org. World Arthritis Day (WAD) is an annual awareness drive highlighting the impact of rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases.
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