Think of arthritis and an image of an elderly person undoubtedly pops up in your mind. So you may be surprised to then hear that the painful condition affects people who are much younger too. Ahead of the festive period, young people with arthritis are opening up about the loneliness they experience because of the condition.
According to charity Versus Arthritis, the condition currently affects 10 million people in the UK. The NHS estimates that around 15,000 of those people are children or young adults. Children are often diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) which causes pain and inflammation in one or more joints and can improve with age. However, young people can also be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Women are three times more likely to suffer from this equally painful form of arthritis than men.
Versus Arthritis' new report details the ups and downs of being a young person with arthritis. The charity found that many young people hide their condition from others, often face missing out on Christmas activities with family and friends due to pain and discomfort, and feel that a lack of understanding is preventing them from living life to the fullest.
Almost three quarters of the 16 to 34-year-olds surveyed admitted to feeling lonely while almost half also experienced feelings of isolation. A huge 75 percent of young people said their arthritis symptoms had forced them to cancel social occasions while mental health problems such as depression and anxiety affected 49 percent of the respondents.
What's even more concerning is that you may know a young person with arthritis and not even realise it. Almost half of young people with the condition have hidden their diagnosis from friends, colleagues, or other people they are close to.
"I’ve felt lonely and isolated in past Christmas seasons when I couldn’t participate as much as I would have liked," says Carrie, a woman in her mid-twenties who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 18. "I love Christmas and the build-up throughout December, but this also coincides with one of the worst times of year for me in terms of symptoms, due to the weather. Celebrations with family, friends, and colleagues soon mount up and suddenly you are left with little time to rest and take care of yourself."
The CEO of Versus Arthritis, Liam O'Toole, echoes Carrie's statement, adding that arthritis can "steal your independence and spontaneity." He is advocating for everyone in the UK and wider world to be aware that arthritis isn't a disease restricted to the elderly and to ensure that any social plans they make are as inclusive as possible.
You can do this by having a simple conversation with your friends about what their ideal Christmas night out would be. Some may prefer an accessible venue that doesn't require walking up and down steps. Others may opt for an event that isn't too heavily focused on alcohol due to the medication they are taking.
Of course, this inclusive way of thinking doesn't just involve those with arthritis. According to the Association for Young People's Health, one in seven young people in the UK have been diagnosed with a long-term illness. That statistic means you could know at least one person with a hidden condition who may be reluctant to speak up about their needs.
Giving people a space to speak freely and without judgement is important, as is taking the time to understand and think about the perspective of others. If we all took a few minutes out of our busy days to do just that, the world would be a much better place for the thousands who are suffering in silence.