Page last updated at 05:57 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 06:57 UK

Woman's shock at arthritis at 20

Mary Cowern
Mary Cowern is Arthritis Care's trustee for Wales.

As a campaign to help more than 1,000 teenage arthritis sufferers in Wales is launched, Arthritis Care volunteer Mary Cowern, 43, from Llanelli, explains what it was like to be diagnosed with the condition when she was only 20-years-old.

It was a big shock to me. I didn't realise that young people could get arthritis, and I think this attitude is still the same today. People in the wider community just seem to think arthritis is something that only develops when you're a lot older.

Being told I had a life-changing condition which could lead to significant disability, well I just didn't believe it.

At that age you think you are invincible.

The arthritis not only caused me physical pain, there was an awful lot of emotional fall-out to deal with as well.

Initially, I went into a denial stage. That did me more harm than good because I didn't look after myself properly and I didn't get the information I needed to manage the condition.

I have to do things a lot slower than everyone else and I have to sometimes do them in a unique way - my partner chuckles when he sees me going down the stairs sometimes!
Mary Cowern

The next stage I went through, I thought, "my life is over". I would concentrate on the things I couldn't do rather than the things I could. I stopped going out with friends. Just going out to the pub became a big huge effort so I thought it was easier not to go. Rather than looking for solutions I saw it as a problem.

The turning point was learning there were other people going through the same problems as I was. You don't often meet other young people with arthritis so just hearing that they were going through the same things was comforting.

"I learnt how to manage my condition. I was having good medical care but it was the practical stuff and support on the emotional side that really helped.

Breakout booklet
Arthritis Care have produced a lifestyle guide for young people who have diagnosed with the condition

"The pain started in my knees. They were very swollen. I had been in a motorbike accident so I put it down to that. But the swelling and pain got worse and didn't go away. It would take me 30 minutes to get out of bed and down the stairs.

"Since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the condition has progressed into my other joints.

"I carry on with my life but it can take a lot of perseverance and determination. I know my limits and I know not to push myself. If I do then I pay for it!

"At the moment because my treatment is going well I can do everyday things. I don't work but I do voluntary work for Arthritis Care which I really enjoy. It gives me a purpose.

"I can also get out and about and I am even more mobile than I was a few years ago when I was virtually wheelchair-bound.

"I have to do things a lot slower than everyone else and I have to sometimes do them in a unique way. My partner chuckles when he sees me going down the stairs sometimes!

There are around 27,000 people in the UK with arthritis under the age of 25
Women are twice as likely to develop arthritis as men
There are more than 200 types of arthritis but it is not known what causes it
The most common in children in young people is inflammatory arthritis
Currently there is no cure but there are many ways to manage and treat it, including protecting your joints and keeping mobile with exercise

"As far as young people are concerned there is no reason why they cannot go out and go to university and get a job as long as there is a support network to help them.

"Arthritis can be different for everybody. The symptoms come on differently for different people. The most important thing is to manage yourself and not think "if so and so can do it, why can't I?". You have to learn how to do things your own way and recognise whether something is too much for you. It's also about building your confidence back.

"If you are having pains or anything out of the ordinary then the best thing to do is consult your doctor.

"Arthritis is quite a complex condition. An early diagnosis is paramount if you are going to achieve the best care and treatment you can. There are so many good treatments out there now, it's much better than 20 or 30 years ago. The treatments can limit damage to your joints and stop any future replacements.

The Arthritis Care booklet Breakout, which is available now, is billed as the complete lifestyle guide for young people with arthritis. It features advice on how to cope with school and university, the importance of talking about the condition and developing healthy relationships. It is available from Arthritis Care's website.

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