Super-fit mum crippled by arthritis opens up on battle to tackle daily life

When Alison McIndoe began to struggle with pain in her knee, the personal trainer put it down to overdoing her workouts in the gym. But when everyday tasks such as washing her hair suddenly became harder due to stiffness and pain in her hands and fingers, she knew something else was happening.

At just 40 years old, Alison had gone from being in the shape of her life, to barely being able to button up a shirt in the space of months. Yet she still wasn’t prepared when, in March 2023, doctors revealed she had developed rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Alison, now 42, from Glasgow, says: “I was devastated. There is a lot of confusion surrounding rheumatoid arthritis, people think it’s about old people with creaky joints, but it’s nothing like that at all.”

According to the NHS, RA affects more than 400,000 people in the UK, with symptoms including joint pain and inflammation. “It’s an auto-immune disease but as it’s not life threatening, it can be difficult for people to sympathise with,” says Alison.

“Many women are diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 45, like me. It completely changes your day-to-day life.”

Alison was working as a personal trainer with her own private studio in Glasgow in 2018 when she became pregnant with her daughter Amelie, now five. She suffered with morning sickness, too unwell to exercise.

Then, when Amelie arrived in September 2018, Alison suffered with postnatal depression and felt terrible about her body having gained three stone. Just over a year later, lockdown hit, gyms were closed and the new mum felt trapped.

“I was desperate to change so I started to focus on manifesting a more positive future,” she says. “One day, after dragging my heavy, stiff legs upstairs I got my yoga mat out and spent 15 minutes stretching on my living room floor. I kept this routine up and slowly I didn’t feel as stiff.”

Alison then tried yoga classes but developed plantar fasciitis. She tried to not let it affect her mood and continued to cycle on her spin bike, use weights at home and ate more healthily. Spurred on by her new regime, in October 2021, Alison applied to join the fire service, a lifelong dream of hers.

She was required to pass a bleep fitness test, so upped her workouts, training up to four times a week. Despite this, she didn’t pass the test in November 2022, but was proud of what she’d achieved. Three weeks later, when Alison awoke with a stiff knee, she put it down to over-exercising.

Her GP diagnosed bursitis in the knee – when the fluid-filled sacs (bursa) that cushion the joints have become painful and swollen – but said it should ease off in a few weeks. Instead, in January 2023, Alison began experiencing stiffness and pain in her hands
and fingers.

“I managed to see my GP again and I explained my hand and knee pain, and now swelling in my knee so he ran some blood tests. A few days later, he called to confirm they indicated possible arthritis and he referred me to rheumatology. I had to stop exercising again.

“I had spent so long improving my health, and now I was faced with this.” Alison was referred straight for an ultrasound and a knee aspiration.

“This involved doctors removing bright orange fluid from my knee during a painful procedure, before being given a steroid injection which gave quick relief. She was even able to return to the gym, though she was limited to walking on the treadmill, but she became aware she could no longer grip weights like before.

Blood tests then showed she was positive for the rheumatoid factor, Alison asked the consultant if she had the autoimmune condition. “It’s hard to explain how I felt when I was first diagnosed, no one came out and told me,” Alison says. “It was never put in writing. But by that point I’d had multiple blood tests and appointments, so it wasn’t a surprise.

“I was hopeful I could start medication and find some letup from the pain now there was a diagnosis. It’s only when I was months down the line and dealing with RA on a day-to-day basis that I began to realise how life changing it was.” She was determined to make the best of it though.

“The weights I used got lighter, but I wasn’t giving up,” Alison said. “Once diagnosed, I was told I will need daily medication as there is no cure. Some days my five-year-old daughter has to help me get dressed, and I have to use a wooden spoon to open my microwave.

“I replaced my kettle with a hot water dispenser because I couldn’t lift the kettle safely. I bought jar openers and now use an electric tin opener. I don’t store heavy bottles in my fridge door as it makes it too heavy to open. I bought a food processor to save me from chopping vegetables. I now use a shampoo brush to help wash my hair when my fingers are too sore and wear bras without hooks to fasten. I walk Amelie to school rather than drive because I struggle to fasten our seat belts.”

Some days are better than others. The pain can come and go on unexpectedly, but a year after diagnosis, Alison is striving to reduce her symptoms. She’s returned to personal training, rebranding herself as BodyProud With Alison and adapting how she teaches by moving her services online.

She recently started a biologic medication, which she self-injects in her leg or stomach every fortnight via the NHS’s Sciensus scheme. It can take three months to see any improvement but she’s hopeful.

As well as her prescribed medication, Alison has tried alternatives to help improve her condition, including red light therapy, infrared saunas, CBD (Cannabidiol) balm, turmeric, collagen and fasting. “I am striving to find a way to heal and reduce my symptoms. This isn’t the life I envisaged for myself, but I’m enjoying exploring the options and raising awareness.”

Exercising with rhuematoid arthritis

Alison's personal training experience has helped her to adjust her workouts since her diagnosis. She advises:

* Adapt your routine so support limitations rather than giving up. When I was irst diagnosed, I had to stop running due to swelling and pain in my knee, so I walked on an incline treadmill instead. I also bought lifting hooks to help me continue weight lifting.

*Go for a walk and get fresh air. This will boost your mood and keep you active. Take a friend for extra support if needed. On days when this feels like too much, just sitting outside and getting some morning daylight will boost your mood.

* Add some stretching/mobility work to your routine. Some days are more challenging than others but some simple stretching, even in a chair, can limit pain and stiffness.

*Strength training is essential as we age. Using some light dumbbells at home for 10/15 mins is enough.