'People were shocked I had osteoarthritis in my forties, they thought I was too young'
Arthritis Research UK and Voltarol have teamed up to highlight how keeping active can help manage the condition. By Abi Jackson
There are a few conditions we automatically think of as being problems of old age, such as dementia, vision and hearing decline and osteoarthritis.
But this isn't entirely accurate - osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint disease, can strike in younger age-groups too.
"Most people think arthritis is an inevitable part of ageing, but in actual fact it can affect anyone at any age," says Dr Tom Margham, a GP and spokesperson for the charity Arthritis Research UK.
"Regardless of age, the condition can have a significant impact on everyday life."
When Ruby James (55) was diagnosed with osteoarthritis nine years ago in her mid-40s, she recalls people being shocked at the news.
"The most common reaction I get when I tell people about my condition is, 'You're too young to have that'. When I was first diagnosed, I thought the same," she says.
In fact, osteoarthritis is relatively common, affecting more than eight million people in the UK. And while the majority will be older, it's not uncommon for people to develop the condition in their 40s, and sometimes younger.
Unlike joint conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease - meaning the body's immune system attacks healthy cells - osteoarthritis is associated with 'wear and tear'. In other words, joint damage that develops over time.
For some people, this damage happens faster and is more problematic, with the bones' protective cartilage breaking down, resulting in painful, stiff, inflamed and swollen joints. Movement and mobility can also be affected, and sometimes bony growths or 'spurs' can occur.
"We still don't know exactly why some people get osteoarthritis at a younger age. But we know there are many factors that can contribute to the development of the condition, including genetics, weight and joint injury," says Dr Margham.
For Ruby, it started with pain in her hip, brought on by exercise. Obvious that this was more than a case of overdoing it in the gym, she ended up having to be carried into A&E by her partner because the pain was so severe. After being examined and given an MRI scan, she was told she'd developed osteoarthritis in the joint. "My consultant at the time suggested physio, which helped, along with medication. I was told then that there was no cure, and eventually I may have to have a hip replacement."
Of course, wear and tear injuries can be common, and joint pain is something many, if not most, people will experience at certain points. But Dr Margham stresses it's important to get any ongoing or worsening joint pain checked out properly, especially if it's accompanied by inflammation and swelling.
You may need tests, which can rule out other potential conditions, as well as help to diagnose osteoarthritis.
"Osteoarthritis can be very severe, and the pain it causes can make everyday tasks, such as getting dressed and cooking, difficult," says Dr Margham. But there are many things you can do: "You can lose weight, if you are overweight, remain active, and try simple treatments alongside medication, such as cold and heat packs."
Keeping active is something Ruby, who lives in London and runs her own business, is deeply passionate about.
After another bad flare-up in 2010, she knew she had to take control, though there's been some trial and error along the way. "I'd read that yoga was good, so joined a beginners' class. This made it worse for me, but the instructor suggested I take a look at Pilates, which I did, although there are some movements and positions I just cannot do," Ruby recalls.
Over time, and with advice from her physio, she's worked out which exercises work and which are best avoided - combined with eating healthily, with lots of oily fish and iron-rich veg, plus meditation, and anti-inflammatory gels and painkillers when she needs them.
For Ruby, it's all about finding balance and listening to her body, but not letting arthritis hold her back. "I go to the gym at least three times a week, and mostly do cardio, with resistance weights to maintain and improve my strength."
Ruby has teamed up with anti-inflammatory gel brand Voltarol, plus Arthritis Research UK, to produce a series of videos about living with osteoarthritis, and exercises designed to help people with joint pain. Remember to check with your own doctor before embarking on any new exercise programme.
To find out more, visit www. arthritisresearchuk.org/ everydayexercises