My job left me unable to dress myself. Then I got news no 21-year-old dreams of

While many of us think of arthritis as something that only affects older people, an estimated 7.1% of people between the ages of 18 and 44 have had some form of the condition.

Ahead of appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, actor Adam Thomas recently revealed he had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) aged 34, saying he too had previously believed it was something people only get ‘later on in their life.’

Anita Dowdle, 30, was just 21 when she was told she had the chronic autoimmune disease, and she has been dealing with its debilitating symptoms for the majority of her adult life.

While working in retail over the Christmas period after she graduated university, Anita started experiencing ‘a lot of pain’ while going about her job.

‘Both of my knees were really swollen, and it was painful to bend them even a little,’ she told ‘Even walking was very difficult.’

Things worsened the more she worked, and the digital marketing manager from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, would wake up in tears every morning.

‘My mum had to help get me get dressed to go to work and I was hobbling the whole way,’ Anita recalled. ‘I had to use supports on my knees just to try to alleviate the pain.’

Initially, she believed she may have injured herself at the gym, but when Anita was still crying out due to severe joint pain months later, her mum insisted she visit her GP. Knowing something was seriously wrong, and after ‘begging’ doctors for help, blood tests and physical examinations revealed RA.

Anita said: ‘It was a real shock, because I was so young. It was an emotional time for me; a very, very low time.

‘I actually had to be put on antidepressants for a while, just so I could deal withall the negative thoughts. It massively impacted me because my whole life had changed, basically.’

Plans to find work in London had to be put on hold as the commute would have been too difficult on days she couldn’t walk, while Anita’s symptoms and the treatment she was on limited her social life drastically.

Although she’s grateful she began treatment early (which she believes helped her in the long run), it was gruelling.

Doctors prescribed the then-21-year-old an immunosuppressant called methotrexate, which she had to inject herself with weekly and caused nausea and extreme fatigue for days at a time.

‘I used to have to do my injection on the Friday, so then I had the weekend to recover, and then back to work on Monday,’ said Anita.

‘I didn’t get much time to do anything over the weekend. Everything had to take a lot of planning around the medication.

‘Also in general, I couldn’t do many physically demanding things because it would aggravate my joints, and I’d just be so tired and fatigued.’

Additionally, as the drug – which can also be prescribed for cancer and Chron’s disease – stifles the body’s immune response, she caught a number of viral infections and had to be careful around friends and family who were ill.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. The condition usually affects the hands, feet and wrists.

Sometimes symptoms can ‘flare up’ and become worse, which can be difficult to predict.

With treatment it’s possible to decrease how much this happens and minimise or prevent long-term damage to the joints.

Other more general symptoms include tiredness and weight loss.

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis early on is important, as early treatment can help reduce the risk of joint damage.

It is an autoimmune disease, which means your immune system mistakenly attacks cells which line your joints, leading to pain, swelling and stiffness.

Over time it can affect not only joints and cartilage, but also bone.

While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, early diagnosis and treatments can allow sufferers months or even years between flare-ups.

Medicine, physiotherapy, and occupational therapy help keep people mobile, and surgery may be required to help any joint problems that may develop.

Depending on the severity of your arthritis, people may be forced to adapt how they do every day tasks.

Complications include the potential of rheumatoid arthritis to lead to other conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, inflammation of other parts of the body (eyes, lungs, heart), and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

After six years, when her RA was better managed, doctors switched Anita to hydroxychloroquine, a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) that reduces pain, swelling and joint stiffness. Her side effects have greatly improved since then, yet her mental health suffered over the years and she was unable to access therapy or counselling via the NHS.

Discussing how the disease has touched every part of her life, Anita said: ‘Career-wise, I was planning to go into photography, because that’s what I did for university. I couldn’t do that because RA affects every joint in your body, so sometimes I’d get flare-ups in my hands where I couldn’t physically pick up a camera.

‘Relationships were difficult to navigate too. When you’re a young girl dating, you don’t want to be like, “oh, I’ve got chronic condition” – it scares a lot of people away.

‘With family as well, because I’m from an Asian background, chronic conditions aren’t talked about as much and can be seen as kind of taboo. You’re just expected to get on with things. So I’ve had a little bit of that from my family in the beginning where they just didn’t understand how much it affected me.’

Anita hopes speaking out about RA will change things, raising awareness that anyone can experience arthritis and improving understanding of the limitations she and others face day-to-day.

‘It’s scary telling the people closest to you, your friends and even your colleagues, that you’ve got a chronic condition and, sometimes, you’re going to need a day off work or you’re not at 100%,’ she said.

Despite hardship, though, Anita has learned how to manage symptoms, doing things she never expected she’d be able to when she first got her diagnosis.

She met her now-husband Tom in 2017 (they were married last year) on a dating app and after telling him about her condition on their first date, she says he’s been ‘amazing’ and supportive throughout.

‘He does a lot of the household chores and stuff, because it’s just too physical for me sometimes,’ said Anita.

‘My sisters are amazing as well; I can talk to them about anything. And my close friends are understanding too, whether I need to cancel plans or change them if, say, my shoulder is too painful to drive.

‘I’m lucky to have a good support network now. But in the beginning, that was really, really difficult to build up.’

A decade on from her diagnosis, Anita has also regained her passion for photography and started a business, as well as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017.

In terms of advice for other young people with RA, she said: ‘Be hopeful that things will get better.

‘If I could talk to myself 10 years ago, I’d tell myself it does get better – even though you’re going to have a really horrible couple of years. You will find ways to manage it, and you can do things that you love again.’

Anita’s next step is starting a family, which although she says is a ‘quite scary’ prospect, is also an exciting one for her and Tom.

‘I’ve got nephews and nieces, and when we babysit one day I am so exhausted the next day,’ she said.

‘But I’ve got my support network, my mum and my in-laws, and they are amazing. I’m very, very lucky.’

Rheumatoid Arthritis Awareness Week

RA Awareness Week takes place from September 11-15, 2023, with the theme this year of #RADrain.

People are being asked to share the day-to-day activities that others may take for granted but can drain the battery of those with RA.

For more information, visit the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society website.

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