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What it's like living with arthritis in your 20s

 

After TV star Paddy McGuinness revealed he has arthritis at the age of 44, Stephanie Bell talks to two young NI women living with the condition.

Doctors have told comedian and TV presenter Paddy McGuinness that he has arthritis in his shoulder at just 44. The shocked Take Me Out host revealed his diagnosis to his 558,000 followers on Instagram last week.

His public declaration drew praise from Arthritis Care who described it as a step towards showing young people with arthritis they're not alone.

A spokesperson for the charity said: "People often think of arthritis as an older person's disease.

"But Paddy is actually one of 11.8 million people under the age of 65 living with a musculoskeletal condition, including 2.7 million under 35 years old."

There are many different forms of arthritis which can greatly impact on the quality of life for sufferers.

We spoke to two young women in their 20s who are both living with arthritis.

'It started with swollen thumbs and within a few months I could barely walk'

Kerry McFarlane from Coleraine was 21 and studying for a degree in teaching at university in England when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Now 29, her symptoms are being controlled by medication but flare-ups and fatigue have so far prevented her from being able to pursue her career as a teacher.

Instead Kerry keeps herself busy by volunteering with the charity Arthritis Care and currently chairs her local support group as well as helping to run courses in self management of the condition.

Kerry's symptoms were very aggressive and within just a few months she went from leading a normal life to being unable to walk.

"It started with swollen and sore thumbs and then my arms wouldn't straighten and within a few months I could barely walk," she says.

"I was sent to a rheumatologist and hadn't thought of arthritis, so I was surprised when he told me I had it.

"I was lucky they diagnosed me early and I got treatment and by then it had started to go to different joints, my hands, elbows, knees and feet."

Kerry had to take a break from her studies but eventually was able to complete her degree in Primary Teaching two years after her friends.

However, she has been unable to apply for a teaching job although she is very positive and hopes as research continues and treatments develop that one day she will be able to pursue her career.

"Ever since I was about five teaching is the only job I wanted to do," she says. "My friends are all teaching but it is just one of those things. And I am just thankful that I was 21 before I got it and not any earlier.

"I haven't been able to work because I suffer from fatigue and it's not the type of tiredness where you just go and have a rest, I have to go to bed and sleep.

"I would stress, however, that it is not the same for everybody and some people who have arthritis lead full lives and are able to work.

"Volunteering with Arthritis Care keeps me going as it gives me something to do.

"I deliver self-management courses which allows me to use my skills in a different way.

"Of course, I was upset when I was first told I had arthritis and I did cry. I thought it was just older people who got it so it was a big shock but I have always been quite positive and you just have to get on with it."

As Kerry's friends graduated and pursued their careers, she was left to come to terms with a condition that initially she knew little about.

She took part in a self-management course with Arthritis Care and says meeting other people who understood and were going through the same thing was a huge help.

"I didn't know anyone with arthritis and having someone to talk to about it who understood was great. Now I deliver the courses and that has given me a purpose," she says.

"The course provides tips and tools for managing the condition allowing you to take control of it."

While her symptoms are largely under control, it is unpredictable and Kerry never knows when she might have a flare-up.

Some days she will feel fine while other days she can suffer acute pain, stiffness and swelling in her joints. As well as preventing her from work, she has been unable to holiday overseas as she can't travel due to debilitating fatigue.

"If you have pain in your joints you can deal with it but the fatigue is so bad that when it hits you have no choice but to go to bed and sleep," she says. "I couldn't travel abroad any more although I do go on little trips to England and back to see my friends from university.

"I can still socialise with my friends and I also socialise with the people I have met through Arthritis Care.

"You can become isolated with this condition and I probably am not as social as I was in the past but you do need to get yourself out.

"It is frustrating for me that I can't do some of the things I did before or follow my career in teaching but I wouldn't rule it out in the future as you don't know what will happen or what future new drugs they might develop."

'It is a hidden condition ... you look okay so people do not realise you're in pain'

Arthritis has overshadowed Caitriona Roberts's life since she was 12 years old.

Now aged 25 and working as a legal analyst, she still suffers severe flare-ups which can prevent her from walking.

Caitriona has had counselling during her teens and also recently to help her try and deal with her condition.

She has just completed a masters degree in gender conflict and human rights law at the Ulster University and hopes to become a human rights advocate, especially in the area of disability rights.

Caitriona is also on the NI Arthritis Care committee and is a leader for youth with the charity, supporting young people and children from the age of 12 who have arthritis.

She says: "It started with my left ankle and my right knee and gradually all of my joints became affected. I suffer pain and swelling and stiffness in my joints.

"My flare-ups are usually triggered by stress and they can strike out of the blue. I also have arthritis in my jaw and when I have a flare-up sometimes I can't eat properly, I can't walk and I can't write.

"Before I was diagnosed I was very active and into all sorts of sport. I played netball, hockey, basketball and football but that all stopped."

Caitriona says she has coped with the support of her family and also the charity Arthritis Care. But it has been tough and the biggest impact she has felt was both at school and university, and now in her working life.

She explains: "When I was in school, just moving from one class to another was hard sometimes and when I was really unwell I couldn't attend class at all and so I missed out on essential teaching.

"The stress of exams would have caused flare-ups and it was like a vicious circle. Sometimes I would have been in so much pain that I couldn't concentrate.

"Also in school, when you're just trying to fit in, I found that having arthritis was a very lonely and a very difficult experience."

Even when it came to a choice of career, Caitriona was limited by her condition.

She feels fortunate that her current employers are very accommodating and allow her to take regular breaks so that she can walk about and ease the stiffness in her joints.

She says: "My consultant made it quite plain to me at a young age that manual labour would be out of the question, so I chose a career that would allow me to sit down and use my brain as opposed to any kind of physical work.

"My employers have been quite good but I did struggle in a previous job which is what has made me want to work in the area of disability discrimination.

"I used to work in a call centre and it felt like a constant battle to get the right kind of seat I needed and computer equipment and extra breaks. It's simple things that can make all the difference and it was a fight to get them."

A particularly bad flare-up last year left Caitriona feeling isolated.

She was unable to socialise with her friends and eventually found herself very alone.

She has just recently finished a new counselling course which she says has helped: "Counselling does help you to find ways to cope.

"You are in a world full of pain but you don't want to moan all the time to your friends and it is easy to become isolated from people.

"I have been trying to socialise a bit more, recently. It is quite a hidden condition because you look okay and people don't realise you are in pain.

"Arthritis Care really helped me when I was a child and now I enjoy working with children and young people through the charity.

"As a youth leader I would take groups on residentials and days out, and we also have discussions on coping with arthritis and how it affects you."

Condition affects 10 million in the UK

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint. In the UK, around 10 million people have arthritis and it affects people of all ages, including children.

There are five general types:

• Inflammatory arthritis (eg rheumatoid)

• Degenerative arthritis (eg osteoarthritis)

• Soft tissue musculoskeletal pain (eg fibromyalgia)

• Back pain

• Connective tissue disease (eg lupus).

Help is available through charity

Arthritis Care offers information and support and can be contacted, tel: 028 9078 2940.

Arthritis Care is part of Arthritis Research UK, a charity that offers information and support to the 300,000 people in Northern Ireland living with or affected by arthritis.

Arthritis Care helps people of all ages to manage their condition and get on with their lives.

The charity's Living Well With Pain programme provides skills to help manage pain better.

Other programmes include Phone Outreach, Staying Connected (for isolated older people) and a Young People and Families programme.

There is also a network of support groups across Northern Ireland.

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