You only have about three months from experiencing the first symptoms of inflammatory arthritis before you could suffer permanent damage. Health correspondent Kim Briscoe meets the support group raising awareness.

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Inflammatory arthritis and its symptoms:

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not to be confused with osteoarthritis, which is caused by wear and tear on joints and most commonly affects older people.

RA is an auto-immune disease which sees the immune system attack the body’s joints.

It affects one in 100 people, but tends to be more prevalent in women over the age of 40.

There are more than 200 different kinds of inflammatory arthritis, of which RA is one of the most common.

Symptoms of inflammatory arthritis can include any combination of:

* persistent joint pains

* early morning stiffness lasting at least 30 minutes

* swollen joints, which are painful if squeezed

* redness / warmth in the joints

* fatigue

* flu-like symptoms

Everyone experiences aches, pains and stiffness in their joints at some point.

But when should you start to worry that it could be something more serious than just the normal effects of everyday life?

Later this month the Rheumatoid in Norfolk Group, known as The Ring, will launch a 12-week campaign to raise awareness of inflammatory arthritis.

The Ring is a social and support group based at Hethersett Village Hall for people with inflammatory arthritis. Members meet monthly for information, education and to make friends with others in the same boat.

Jane Scarfe, chairman of The Ring, said: “If you don’t get inflammatory arthritis diagnosed within 12 weeks you can end up with permanent joint damage.

“What we are doing is a little bit like the stroke FAST early recognition campaign. We want people to be aware of what the alarm bells are.

“Then they need to ask their GP if it could be inflammatory arthritis, if they could run blood tests for it and if they could consider it as a possibility. Early diagnosis is important and there is a huge range of very positive drugs now that can help people with the condition.”

Mrs Scarfe said biologic drugs in particular have made a big difference to people with inflammatory arthritis.

Patients in Norfolk are “incredibly fortunate” because in the 1990s the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital’s consultant, David Scott, got a lot of his patients onto the first trials and was able to continue prescribing the drugs when the trials were finished.

The group is launching the campaign to coincide with Arthritis Care Awareness Week from May 14, and hopes to hold information stands at the N&N and elsewhere to draw public attention to the risks.

Steve Ranns was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was 56.

He says: “I was working in the construction industry and I was having a lot of trouble with fatigue and my arms, hands and feet were hurting. Working in construction I was always getting aches, pains and knocks but I remember suddenly having to sit down at work in tears because it was so bad. I was seeing my doctor for something else and they made me an appointment at Addenbrooke’s.”

Now 62, the Thetford grandfather-of-five said the RA in his shoulders and arms affected him to the point where he couldn’t hold his first grandchild, but says since being put on biologic drugs six months ago his condition has improved.

He says: “I can’t reach up at all and I have some permanent damage in my shoulders and some minor damage in my hands and feet. I was lucky to be diagnosed and things have improved over the last eight years.”

Most people who spend time walking in the Dolomites in Italy expect to come home with a few aches and a bit of stiffness.

But when Viv Hawes, from Hethersett, was still feeling the effects three weeks later she knew it was time to visit her doctor, who suspected the then 49-year-old had inflammatory arthritis straight away, as he had done some research into the condition. Now 61, she says: “Unfortunately I couldn’t be seen at the hospital for months and I ended up with quite a lot of damage in my feet and I was bed-ridden. It’s something called severe inflammatory polyarthritis and even then I’m not typical as it happened so quickly and suddenly and affected so many of my joints from head to foot.”

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