If you think that arthritis is something that only older people have to live with, think again: writer Josie England was diagnosed in her 30s, and after endless fruitless therapies, she found the answer to her painful nightmare.
A few years into my 30s, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I was shocked – surely arthritis was the kind of condition that only really affects older people. Since that diagnosis, however, I’ve found out that it’s most commonly diagnosed in those of working age, and up to three times more common in women than men.
It affects people in a variety of ways; in my case, it affected my wrists and ankles – making it painful to work, do household tasks and, of course, exercise.
A life-long fitness fan, the pain that RA inflicted meant having to give up pretty much all the sports and exercise I used to love. It felt pointless to go to a workout class when I couldn’t even support my own weight on my hands, and the burning feeling in my wrists after a game of tennis was relentless.
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For some, finally getting a diagnosis after months or years of worrying about what’s wrong can be quite a reassuring conclusion That’s certainly how I felt; it also offered some misplaced hope that a quick fix would exist that’d enable me to go back to playing sports. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. If I thought the journey to diagnosis was long, it turns out that learning to manage the condition was even longer.
After another year of trialling the medications on offer with no relief, I felt like a shell of my former self. My confidence and mental health were in tatters; I’d gone from an incredibly active person to someone who was afraid of the pain I experienced if I tried to exercise, and too conscious of my own new-found weakness to even try.
Does acupuncture help with arthritis?
Exhausted from all the different medications, my doctor suggested another route: acupuncture. I’d never had an acupuncture session before so I had no idea what to expect – but whatever vague idea was in my head, I definitely wasn’t expecting what happened.
In a cold room, I lay on a bed as a therapist put needles in various parts of my skin and left the room, not telling me when they would be coming back. So, I waited.
At one point, I tried to move and one of the needles in my thigh shifted, sending shooting pains down my leg. An hour later, when they finally came back, I almost cried with relief.
Rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups are triggered by stress
My physio had also suggested therapy, suggesting that RA is made worse by stress. They had a valid point; you need to be less stressed if you want to get a grip of RA. But I was stressed because I have RA and it was dictating my entire life. Still, I booked in for cognitive behavioural therapy, and 10 sessions later, I was equipped with some better coping mechanisms. My symptoms, however, still persisted.
That was until I was recommended another physiotherapist who specialised in hand and wrist pain. We took it slowly, working on tissue massage and acupuncture (which was nothing like my previous experience) before strengthening the muscles around my joints. Finally, it seemed like someone understood the constant pain and mental anguish I was going through.
Pilates is a great gateway exercise
I finally felt ready to try exercising again. I knew I’d have to take it really slowly, and my physio agreed that going back to pilates would be a good place to begin. Before my first class, I was incredibly nervous, but my nerves dissipated within minutes of being back on the reformer. It wasn’t pain free by any means, but for the first time in ages, it also didn’t feel totally impossible.
Since then, I’ve tried badminton in place of tennis and squash. The rackets are lighter to hold, causing less pain, and I’m also making plans to try spinning and swimming when I’m ready – low impact, high-endorphin workouts.
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I still have a distance to go. The pain is now at a lower level; I still feel it every day but it’s not constant. It’s now clear that progress isn’t linear; if you’re on a recovery journey, you’ve got no choice but to be patient. My body doesn’t feel the same as it did before – and it probably won’t again. So, I’m focusing on the movement I can do, and I’m celebrating each small win.
While I haven’t yet accepted that I’ll never play high-impact sports again, I am grateful to be back in a fitness environment after years of feeling helpless. Whether it’s in the reformer studio or on a court with a racket in hand, I’m starting to feel more like my old self.
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