In the popular imagination the arthritis sufferer is a little old lady with bent hands, loose wedding ring on gnarled fingers, back bent, legs bowed. But arthritis is in fact much more widespread, mysterious, and difficult to treat than most people realise.
I woke one morning, aged 16, with a crippling pain the length of my right thigh. I could barely walk, the pain brought me to tears, and it was entirely inexplicable. The usual questions were asked — had I twisted my leg, was it some kind of muscle pain, well here’s an aspirin, the pain will pass. But it didn’t.
I was at that time performing with the local youth theatre (luckily playing the part of an older woman, so the stick and the limp did not matter) and insisted on going to school, where my friends thought it highly amusing to commandeer a wheelbarrow to push me around the site. It was amusing, but it was also necessary. For a while I could barely walk.
I was diagnosed with acute traumatic arthritis of the hip caused by a blow (I had fallen off a horse not long before). I was told that the pain would recede, but that in all probability I would be arthritic in middle age, and that the arthritis would recur not only in my hip but elsewhere.
There are ten million sufferers of arthritis in Britain and around 15,000 of these are children. There are over a hundred different types – one of the reasons why it is so hard to treat. The simplest way of explaining it is to say that it is an inflammation of the joints, but there is very little else that is simple about the disease, very little knowledge about its causes, and no real cure.
Perhaps that is why many people dismiss the disease as ‘nothing serious’. It’s not cancer, after all. It can’t kill you. It can’t kill you, but rheumatoid (as opposed to osteo) arthritis can have such an impact on your health that it can certainly be seen to be a contributory factor to death.
I cannot say that having arthritis has changed my life; I can say that I notice its effect often. I am not always in pain, but pain does strike me in differing degrees of severity. Now I am in my early 50s the arthritis has, as promised, started attacking other joints. Walking down the stairs in the morning is often slightly painful, I find it hard to pick up small objects — there are various small adaptations I have to make, sets of circumstances I have to consider, because of the disease.
The referred pain from the hip is the most extreme of the pains I suffer, sometimes reducing me to a limping shadow of my usually energetic self, but I see the other, milder pains, as warnings for the future. If I have to hold on to walls when I walk downstairs now, what will I be like at 70? There are serious anxieties and frivolous ones to contend with — will there come a day when I have to live in a bungalow? When I can’t have a bath? Or when I can’t put on tights and will have to wear trousers? It is easier to distract oneself with the things that don’t matter than to worry about whether I will be entirely crippled.
Various sources suggest various ways of alleviating, if not curing, the symptoms of arthritis. My grandmother always wore a copper bracelet, and I have found that it does help. Ditto glucosamine and chondroitin tablets. But do they really help or do I only think they do? I’m sporadic in my wearing/taking — a bout of pain and I’m back on them, feel better and I ignore them. Swimming definitely helps the hip — but hurts my hands (I can only do breast-stroke so my hands tighten into little clawed cups).
A friend, whose arthritis was many many times more debilitating than mine, eschewed any traditional treatment, going instead for liquid gold injected into her veins. It seemed to work for a while. She was put on steroids and refused to take them, choosing instead to take snake venom pills imported from the far east. She blew up, and discovered that the pills were full of steroids.
So what is the answer for the millions of arthritis sufferers out there? There isn’t one. It’s about management rather than cure, and about a greater understanding from those who do not suffer.