Living with chronic arthritis in the COVID-19 pandemic

As more and more people are returning to work, for those living with the burden of arthritis, the wait will be considerably longer.

Living with arthritis requires you to be cautious, measured and keeps you alert to the dangers that physical movement can cause at all times. The impacts of COVID-19 has only increased this anxiety, as the long-term health condition makes sufferers more vulnerable than others. Assessing the risk in rheumatology patients is particularly important as they often have autoimmune conditions or receive treatment to control their immune systems.

Autoimmune strains of arthritis make people susceptible to contracting diseases and viruses as the immune system is confused as to its purpose and starts to attack the body’s healthy tissues. In rheumatoid arthritis, this often manifests itself in the inflammation of the joints.

“I struggle with everything that involves movement. It’s a constant pain and my body aches all the time.”

Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common form in the UK, affecting around 400,000 adults aged 16 and over. Second to only Osteoarthritis, the number of rheumatoid cases has grown exponentially in the past two decades. This growth, and the inherent vulnerability in arthritis has spelled a simple message to those with the condition: Do not return to work and stay at home as much as possible.

This message, despite adhering to the government guidelines and putting the safety of workers first, can be frustrating for people that have been away from work for prolonged times.

Sharron Phillips, 47, Devon, has Chronic Rheumatoid Arthritis Seronegative Inflammatory Polyarthritis and experiences constant pain in her joints. Not being able to return to work as a Dinner Lady makes her feel “lazy and frustrated. It’s like I’m letting the team down. The thought of going back scares me because of the risk, but the fact that I can’t go back frustrates and upsets me”.

“It makes everyday things like chores and driving very hard.”

Living with arthritis during the pandemic has made her more fearful of others and unsafe when shopping. “It makes me feel more vulnerable because I’m high risk and it’s really scary thinking that I might catch the virus, and if I did get it, I could be seriously ill.”

Efforts have been made by operating businesses and offices to employ social distancing measures and install Perspex screens and barriers where necessary. However, one of the challenges for people who have yet to return to work, is staying in the loop and feeling as though they have a job to go back to. The added stress and anxiety can often make inflammatory illnesses worse. Lack of contact with colleagues and employers can also lead to people second guessing their worth within the organisation.

Sharron explains “The people I work with are usually really understanding and caring. When I need time out for operations or treatment, they help me to still feel connected to the school. But since the virus, since I’ve been off, I haven’t heard anything from the senior leadership team. I understand they have a lot going on, but it makes me sad and anxious to think they are not thinking about me or my role at the school”.

For people who have severe conditions like Sharron, everyday life can prove challenging enough without the added inconvenience that lockdown has presented. “I struggle with everything that involves movement. It’s a constant pain and my body aches all the time. At some points it’s more bearable than at others but when I have a bad flare up, it makes everyday things like chores and driving very hard. Although the level of pain has remained the same, she has noticed other negative impacts of the virus. “I’ve definitely felt more stressed and anxious. I have to have medical infusions every 8 weeks. I had to cancel one of these towards the start of the pandemic as I felt far too vulnerable to leave the house and enter a hospital. The next treatment was postponed by the hospital, and even then, it was at a place I had never been before. I have also noticed problems in getting the right medication and have been missing iron tablets, which has never happened before!”

“It makes me sad and anxious to think they are not thinking about me or my role.”

The issue is widespread and impacts nearly every sector. This is mainly down to the fact that arthritis is widespread and anyone of any age can experience some form of it. In industries such as retail and service, the wait to return to work may be even longer. Working in an environment where they could potentially deal with hundreds of different people over the course of a shift is clearly far too risky, even with protective boarding in place.

Francesca Wall is 29 and is the Assistant Manager of SOHO Coffee at the Brewery, Cheltenham. She suffers from Psoriatic Arthritis which is also an autoimmune inflammatory arthritis. She shares similar feelings of frustration about not being able to return to her job.

“It’s frustrating not being able to go back to normal and see people. I’m bored of being stuck at home with not a lot to do, but it’s juxtaposed with the slight fear of having to go back when it doesn’t always feel safe. It’s not so much the arthritis, it’s the medications that I’m on that make me feel more vulnerable. My immune system is more compromised because of them.”

Arthritis can take over younger peoples lives. The youthful energy that is expected of teenagers and young adults can be harmful towards mental health of those who cannot live up to these expectations. This becomes more dangerous to those working in physically demanding roles, or even those who are on their feet all day, perhaps serving customers.

Fran praises her employers, SOHO Coffee, for their helpfulness. “They have been really great, and I haven’t felt pressured into going back to work either. They enrolled me in online courses which are interesting.”

Fran, like Sharron, has concerns over the level of interaction she will have to engage in over the coming months. “When I had flare ups it would be difficult to work and generally just get around and do things. It’s not much different now. I probably have less flare ups now as I’m not in a physical job currently, but it impacts me in a different way of being more fearful of going out and around people.”

“I’m bored of being stuck at home, but it’s juxtaposed with the slight fear of having to go back when it doesn’t always feel safe.”

As the number of arthritis sufferers continues to rise, the charity ‘Versus Arthritis’ is campaigning for greater awareness and has had a huge impact in the media recently. It was launched in September 2018, following the merger of the UK’s leading arthritis charities. Their latest campaign ‘It’s not alright, it’s arthritis’ has got 53,009 supporters and calls for the silence to be lifted.

“By staying quiet we’re keeping arthritis invisible and ignored.”

– Versus Arthritis, 2020

The campaign comes as it is believed people often hold back from talking about their condition. Versus Arthritis found that nearly half of people with arthritis said they’ve hidden their pain from a loved one. With the isolation that is being enforced, and with no end date in sight, it’s clear that now more than ever, people with arthritis need support.

The charities website is an amazing resource for anyone suffering from any form of arthritis. They have a comprehensive list of the different arthritic forms and have an extensive list of possible medications and explanations for each.

By adding your name and becoming a member of the campaign, you can raise awareness of the condition and help people to be more mindful of those who suffer from arthritis in your community.

To sign the petition or to find out more about arthritis and its impacts, please visit: https://action.versusarthritis.org/page/58482/petition/1

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