Recently you may have seen adverts on prime-time TV for Versus Arthritis and thought, Arthritis that’s what old people, or isn’t it just sore fingers when it gets cold? Or maybe you didn’t think about it at all.
Well that was me up until two years ago; I have always been physically active from a young age, doing cross country running at a county level at Primary School to travelling around the world Rock climbing in my late teens and early twenties (this photo is me climbing in Thailand, and printed in a book, World Climbing by Simon Carter). Competing at a UK level in the British Indoor Climbing Championships, snowboarding, running half marathons, swimming, doing yoga. It never crossed my mind that I would be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 37.
By Rachel Ross, Soul Pilates Teacher
After the birth of my two children I found it difficult to juggle being a mother and help my body recover from the changes of giving birth whilst maintaining my love of fitness. But I made sure I found the time, if even if it was to leave the house for an hour on my own to do yoga, then I found Pilates.
I discovered the studio Soul Pilates and went to regular equipment sessions sometimes twice a week. After a while I decided that’s what I wanted to do as a career, to be a Pilates teacher. In May 2016 I managed to secure a place to start teacher training at the Physiotherapy and Pilates Rehabilitation Centre in Clevedon (in affiliation with Alan Herdman Pilates). The course was due to start September 2017, plenty of time to hone my skills, learn more of the repertoire and get my old Biology degree books out and get a head start.
However, during a family holiday to Canada in the Summer of 2016 to visit my husband’s parents, I kept being plagued by tendon trouble in my hands, and a sense of being irritable and tired all the time. I still kept running and practicing Pilates in the beautiful surroundings of my in-law’s house. I thought I had maybe over done it. or maybe it was the jet-lag; a multitude of reasons but this pain in my hands continued when we returned back home to Bristol.
I saw my Osteopath to try and pin point what was going on with my hands, as my treatment continued the symptoms had started to get worse, by now I had swelling in both hands in my wrists and finger joints which were starting to resemble claws and pain and swelling in my toes which had become all bent over, at this point my Osteopath decided to write to my GP with her concerns.
Within the space of three weeks, it was not only my hands and feet which were affected, my knees, my hips, elbows and shoulders where swollen, stiff and inflamed. I couldn’t stand up straight or walk properly, I couldn’t dress myself or my children, I couldn’t cut up my own food or hold a hot drink in a cup to my mouth. The swelling and pain was so bad that I wore a hole in my bed sheets from writing around in agony every night and sleep was non existant.
Needless to say, it was an extremely scary time not just for myself but for my husband and my children who couldn’t really understand what had happened to Mummy, and why she kept crying and why Daddy was having to help Mummy get dressed every morning. At this point my GP referred me to Rheumatology and I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis in December 2016.
For those of you who don’t know, Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto - immune condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints.
This means that the immune system, which is the body’s natural self-defence system, gets confused and starts to attack your body’s healthy tissues, this causes the inflammation in your joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects around 400,000 adults aged 16 and over in the UK. And it can affect anyone of any age.
Over the next 9 months it was continual consultant appointments, x-rays, blood tests, steroid injections to try to reduce the inflammation, lots of strong pain relief, medication reviews and physiotherapy appointments all the while trying to get my head around what was happening.
I still kept going to my regular Pilates classes at Soul Pilates, I would shuffle up the stairs to the studio and with the help and support of Nic I would leave the sessions having a little bit more movement through my joints, a little less pain and the feeling of having achieved something which for my mental health at that time was so crucial.
The last two years have been a roller coaster, from dealing with the initial diagnosis to the relief of the medication to lessen the pain and inflammation to frustration and anger of it having totally taken over my life. There have been endless hospitals appointments, combined with the fatigue and irritability, nerve pain, migraine headaches, “brain fog,” which all stem from the effect of inflammation in the body.
To add to this, the ongoing side effects of the Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) were hard to bear - these drugs slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage but can be incredibly toxic on the body.
The one thing that has been a huge success from this immensely challenging life event is that I completed my Pilates teacher training and became a full Comprehensive Equipment and Mat Work teacher in June 2018, despite the struggles of the last two years. For me it was never an option not to do my teacher training, as my lovely friend said to me ‘You’ve never been one to let anything stand in your way Rach’.
I can honestly say that without Pilates in my life, my rehabilitation would have been very different. I remember my physiotherapist saying to me ‘I don’t really need to see you anymore you’ve done all the hard work yourself by going to Pilates regularly, I wish all my patients were like you’, such is the power of Pilates.
When I’m feeling good or when I’m having a flare in my joints I still use Pilates not only as a physical relief but for my mental health too, It makes me feel good and aid my movement and what better way to look after my body and mind with this lifelong chronic condition than to be surrounded by Pilates and having the support of fellow teachers, having the joy of teaching lovely clients and using my experience to positively help those with similar or chronic pain conditions and specialist rehabilitation needs. Pilates for me has become a daily way of life.