Life Wellbeing Why rheumatoid arthritis can affect anyone – even top athletes
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Why rheumatoid arthritis can affect anyone – even top athletes

Caroline Wozniacki WTA
Caroline Wozniacki revealed her shock diagnosis at the WTA Finals in Singapore. Photo: AAP
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Rheumatoid arthritis, a painful condition that attacks the joints, can affect absolutely anyone. And former world tennis Number 1 Caroline Wozniacki’s recent revelation is further proof that this chronic disorder does not discriminate by age or fitness level.

The 28-year-old Australian Open champion revealed on Friday (AEDT) that she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis before the US Open in late August.

“In the beginning, it was a shock,” Wozniacki told reporters in Singapore after her WTA season ended with a loss to world Number 7 Elina Svitolina.

“Just, you feel like you’re the fittest athlete out there, or that’s in my head, that’s what I’m known for, and all of a sudden you have this to work with.”

The current world Number 3 said she noticed increasing pain and fatigue in the second half of the year but shrugged off the symptoms or put it down to other common illnesses.

“After Wimbledon I wasn’t feeling well, I thought it was just the flu,” she said.

“I go to Washington, knees are hurting, my leg is hurting, I’m like ‘OK well, just move on’. I play in Montreal and something still doesn’t feel right.”

Lyn March, a rheumatologist at Royal North Shore Hospital and professor at the University of Sydney, said it’s not uncommon for people to confuse arthritis symptoms with other health problems.

“Sometimes it doesn’t get diagnosed early enough because they think, ‘that was an injury, or I sprained that’, so they make excuses or think about the reasons why their joints might be sore.

“But in fact if they’re getting multiple injuries, and multiple swollen joints, then they need to get checked out,” she told The New Daily. 

However, athletes are no more prone to rheumatoid arthritis than anyone else, and sport injuries do not cause the auto-immune condition, Professor March said.

“Obviously, it’s going to have a much greater impact on you if your career is in professional sport. But unfortunately rheumatoid arthritis can have a big impact on anyone who has it, at any age,” she said.

The condition, which affects mostly women between 30 and 60 years, is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

“An auto-immune [response] means that your body’s immune system attacks itself. So, in rheumatoid arthritis we don’t know why it starts, it’s definitely multifactorial.

“There is a genetic component, but we’ve not found a single gene … smoking is a risk factor, but obviously not everyone who gets rheumatoid arthritis is a smoker,” she said.

Common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include swelling and pain in the joints, particularly in the hands and feet, stiffness (especially in the morning) and persistent fatigue.

This is different to osteoarthritis, which typically causes painful symptoms at the end of the day, occurs in larger joints, such as the knee or hip (but can affect any joint) and is most common in women over 65.

Franca Marine, from Arthritis Australia, said rheumatoid arthritis is still largely misunderstood within the community – despite the condition affecting 400,000 Australians, with about 10,000 new diagnoses every year.

“People tend to trivialise it, they might say ‘it’s just arthritis’. But it’s a lot more than that,” she told The New Daily.

“We know that people [living with rheumatoid arthritis] report that very few people understand the condition and the impact it has on them. Some people might laugh off a young person complaining of arthritis.”

This stigma can often take a toll on a person’s mental wellbeing, Ms Marine said.

“We know that a lot of people with RA have much higher rates of anxiety and depression than the normal population … Also if you’re depressed it can make your pain worse, and people can fall into a spiral.

“It affects their family, and their ability to maintain social relationships. Some people might make plans and then not feel quite up to it, so could be losing friends as a result,” she said.

Though there is no cure, the condition can be managed well with medication and lifestyle changes.

Wozniacki told reporters that she is remaining positive.

“The medication has really improved, so that’s amazing,” she told reporters. “You have to think about diet, sleep, everything else.”

“Some days you wake up and you can’t get out of bed and you just have to know that’s how it is, but other days you live and you’re fine. You don’t even feel like you have it.”

For support and information, visit the Arthritis Australia website.

-with wires

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