Arthritis is a disease often associated with old age. Anuji Varma meets a young woman who proves that it can afflict children, too.
It is the crippling condition usually associated with the elderly but at just the age of seven Sally Watt began suffering from arthritis.
Parents Julia and Philip unwittingly spotted the first signs of the condition after noticing their daughter was unable to hold cups and plates without dropping them.
The couple, from Stafford, initially put the clumsiness down to her young age, but became more concerned when Sally began complaining about pains in her wrists and dizziness.
Yet numerous trips to their local GP failed to detect any illness, so the family was referred to a paediatrician.
But it took four years of tests and x-rays before doctors finally diagnosed Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, a little-known condition that affects more than 12,000 children in the UK.
“It was a relief when I finally found out what was wrong with me,” recalled Sally, now aged 27.
“I had been in constant pain since the age of seven and it eventually became normal for me to feel that way. I even remember the day that it started, I felt tired and sick and had dizzy spells.
“Teachers at my primary school weren’t very sympathetic. I think some thought I was making up all these aches and pains but, of course, they were all genuine.
‘‘I didn’t really know much about the disease at that age, so I wasn’t as shocked as my parents when I was diagnosed.” Julia added: “We were in and out of hospitals for four years before we finally got a diagnosis. I was relieved but also baffled because arthritis is a disease normally linked to old people.
“But when doctors showed us the x-rays of Sally’s wrists over the years, it was obvious that she had arthritis. You could see the deterioration in her joints.
“Yet because it is such a hard disease to detect, it took a long time to diagnose.”
Sally started secondary school soon after her diagnosis and despite her health struggles she refused to let her illness stop her from achieving her goals. She said: “Everything took a little bit longer than my friends. But I had a really supportive family and my mates were also brilliant.
“No-one ever picked on me for having a pensioner’s condition. If anything it was some of the teachers who targeted me as they seemed to doubt my illness, even when doctors had confirmed it.”
Sally was put on anti-inflammatory tablets and had hydrotherapy and physiotherapy sessions and has learned to cope with the disease.
And the condition has certainly not held her back. Sally completed a university degree to gain a masters in music, sings regularly in a local choir, drives her own car and even works as a volunteer for the organisation Arthritis Care.
She has also travelled around the world and addressed major conferences about her illness.
“I’m quite a gobby person. So if I want something, or if people try to bully and intimidate me, I will stand up to them. I think this sort of attitude helped me to get on with my life,’’ she said.
“I went to university to study a degree in music and afterwards went on to gain a masters. I
“ think if I didn’t have this illness, I never would have had that opportunity. I did what most teenagers do, but it just took a little bit longer.
“Luckily there was another girl who couldn’t go out much because of a disability so we used to go to Asda every Friday night, buy lots of nice food and sit in watching movies together.’’
Sally’s symptoms include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and aches all over her body.
She is prone to falling and some days she said the pain feels like a chisel hammering away at her body. She regularly takes sessions with other JIA sufferers for Arthritis Care and passes on her experiences on how to self manage the condition.
“It’s important for young people out there to understand that just because they have a disease normally associated with the elderly, it’s not the end of the world,’’ Sally said.
“They are not old themselves and they can get on with their lives.
‘‘I have achieved so much yet I was told I was suffering from arthritis at just 11 years old.”
In fact, the only thing besides arthritis that Sally does have in common with the elderly is knitting! She attends a local club which is brimming with pensioners and even swaps arthritis stories with her pensioner pals.
She said: “I have a really good laugh and enjoy the knitting, despite finding it quite difficult at times.”
And she added: “I never let JIA get me down. I do struggle and need a walking aid most days. ‘There are things I can’t do, but there are so many other things that I can get on with.”