Rugby star Emily Scott speaks out about her arthritis

02 November 2020
Emily playing rugby with her friends.

Emily Scott plays rugby for England and Harlequins Women and is one of our young supporters. Now 28, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was seventeen and has been managing the condition alongside her professional rugby career since.

Yesterday, an interview published by The Sunday Times, marked the first time Emily has spoken out about having arthritis publicly. She hopes that by sharing her story, she will help other young people with the condition to open up and feel inspired to pursue their dreams.

Here Emily talks to us about her journey with arthritis, the ups and downs, the challenges she’s had finding medications that allow her to continue playing rugby, and her determination to not let arthritis get in the way of her doing what she loves.

“Meeting other young people with arthritis has inspired me to speak out”

Emily has wanted to share her story for a while but was reluctant to speak out for fear that it would be misunderstood or perceived the wrong way. Her motivation today has grown from her own acceptance of the condition and through meeting other young people with arthritis.

“For the last two years I have taught PE to secondary school students. It was during this time that I met another young person with arthritis for the first time. They sat out of PE lessons because of their arthritis and it was then that I realised the impact the condition can have on people’s confidence and ideas about what you can and can’t achieve.

“Everyone is different, but it’s important that we try and change the perception that an arthritis diagnosis means you can’t do certain things. We all need to manage ourselves through the good days, bad days and the flare ups, but you can still achieve your goals, even in physical sport. You just have to do it in a way that works for you.”

“My diagnosis didn’t mean much at the time, I didn’t know young people could get arthritis”

Emily’s symptoms started with a swollen hand whilst on an international tour with England, but when the swelling continued after returning home, she was advised to see a rheumatologist who diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis.

“The diagnosis was a shock, but it didn’t really mean much to me to start with. I wasn’t aware of the disease and didn’t realise it could affect somebody my age.

“It wasn’t until I experienced the full force of the symptoms and became more educated about the condition, that I realised it can affect anyone and everyone.”

“Finding the right medication has been my biggest challenge, and still is.”

Emily was initially put on medications including methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, and sulfasalazine to treat her arthritis, but she experienced really bad side effects.

“I became very sluggish, regularly felt nauseous and sick, and my physical symptoms deteriorated quickly. I would wake up and different joints in my body would be inflamed and ache constantly. My hands and wrists were particularly bad.

“I was in a lot of pain and at its worse I remember not being able to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night, brush my hair, or spray deodorant. I couldn’t even get dressed on my own.

“Managing the side effects of the powerful medications needed to manage my arthritis has been a huge challenge and one of the hardest things to cope with through all of this.

“Even ten years on, I’m still trying to find the right medication.”

“People don’t believe a young person like me could have arthritis, but they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.”

Even though the condition is invisible to most people who know Emily or have seen her play rugby, it’s had a huge impact on her life and the fluctuating nature of arthritis means she still has good days and bad.

“I’ve had really low moments. I remember a particular England training session where I couldn’t physically catch and pass the rugby ball, it was so painful.

“This is hard when amongst teammates, it’s impossible to explain why you were fine one day and not the next, and you don’t want to let people down or have the coaches deselect you because you’re not up to it. My coaches have never put pressure on me, they’ve been incredibly supportive, but you put the pressure on yourself to succeed.

“I missed out on playing two World Cups because the drug infusions I had in my legs weakened the bones and caused shin splints.

“That was probably one of the hardest times for me. It was the biggest moment of my career and was so devastating when I wasn’t able to go.

“Not only was it a difficult time for me, but for my friends and family too. They were all in Ireland watching the World Cup that I was due to be playing in, and I was stuck at home.”

“Listening to my body and adapting has been key”

Despite the ups and downs, Emily has adapted to her condition along the way. Working alongside her coaches, she has developed different training methods to the rest of her team to avoid putting pressure on her joints.

“I soon realised that I wouldn’t be able to do everything the other girls in my team were doing and that I would have to listen to my body and take a step back when I needed to.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have good doctors and physios around me, and although they were also new to dealing with the condition, they’ve helped me massively.

“I’ve learnt to manage my bad days alongside my coaches so they know what to expect and can adapt training based on my strengths and weaknesses. My hands and wrists get very painful, especially in certain positions, so I adapt the equipment for certain lifts in the gym to better suit me.”

“Arthritis isn’t an easy ride, but you don’t have to give up what you love.”

Emily has continued to follow the sport she loves and remains determined not to let arthritis become her identity.

“It's not all easy, I have bad days and flare ups, but I do my best to manage these, so I can continue doing what I love.

“Meeting others with similar experiences definitely helps. I wish I’d known about Versus Arthritis and the charities’ young people and families service back when I was diagnosed, it would have been a huge help to have been able to talk to others my age about the side effects of my medication, the symptoms and feelings I was experiencing.”

“Nobody should tell you what you can and can’t achieve. Everyone has goals in life and arthritis should not get in the way of that.”

Get the support you need