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University

Many young people with arthritis enjoy their time at university and are successful. Planning ahead and being organised will help you to stay well and make the most out of your time there.

Choosing the right subject

It's possible to study any subject when you have arthritis and universities offer plenty of support to overcome any difficulties you may face related to your condition.

You might know exactly what you want to study, but if you’re finding it difficult to choose, think about how your arthritis affects you and find out as much as you can about the course. You could ask yourself the following questions:

  • How will I cope with the demands of the course?
  • Will I be more likely to do well with an emphasis on coursework or final exams?
  • Are there any course requirements which could be difficult for me, such as outdoor field trips?

Choosing the right university

Deciding on the right university may be just as important as picking the right subject. Not all students leave home to go to university, as more young people are choosing to live at home and study locally for financial and other reasons.

Studying close to home may have benefits for you, such as close support from your family if you become unwell and keeping the same GP, rheumatology team and pharmacist.

If there are few suitable universities or courses locally, you could look into distance learning opportunities such as those offered by the Open University.

If you decide to move away, it’s important to visit the universities you're considering. Try to answer these questions:

  • How would you manage, both while you are well and if you became unwell?
  • How spread out are the university buildings?
  • How far away would you be living from your building?
  • What's the journey like to your parents'/carers' home?

Student support

All universities have a team supporting the wellbeing of students, often called the Student Support Office or Student Welfare Office.

Contact them before you apply to discuss what support and arrangements they can offer. It's a good idea to talk to them about your arthritis.

Once you've been accepted at a university, it's very important to get in touch with their Student Support Office as soon as possible so they can help with issues such as accommodation.

The sooner you get in touch with them and tell them about your condition, the more help they'll be able to offer. They'll work with you to determine what support you need and help you to arrange it. They may be able to help with:

  • finance, for example helping you to process a Disabled Students' Allowance application (see below)
  • accommodation, for example helping you get a room on the ground floor and close to where you study
  • informing course leaders and tutors if you become unwell or need extra support
  • getting extended coursework deadlines if you become unwell
  • getting special conditions during exams, including breaks, extra time or a scribe (a person to write your answers as you say them)
  • accessing counselling.

You may feel you don't need extra support at the moment, but it's a good idea to talk to a Student Support Officer anyway. Arthritis is unpredictable and having a plan in place will make things much easier if you do suffer a flare-up.

Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA)

You may be entitled to financial and practical support through the Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA). This could provide funding for items like:

  • laptops
  • ergonomic chairs
  • electronic equipment to record lectures.

For more information, visit www.gov.uk

Managing your arthritis

As you've grown up, you've probably taken on more responsibility for managing your arthritis. You may already organise your doctors appointments and repeat prescriptions. If you're not yet taking a lead role, preparing for university may be a good time to start, even if you plan to live at home for now.

Review what you know about your condition and the treatments you're on. Read more about JIA.

Looking after yourself by eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep will help you to perform to your best and make the most of university. Read more about how you can help yourself.

Remember that having a chronic condition like arthritis can affect your emotions as well. It's not uncommon to experience low mood and feel frustrated or isolated. Read more about feelings and emotions.

Arthritis is unpredictable. Even if you've been well for a long time, it's important to know what to do if:

  • your condition changes
  • you have a flare-up
  • you suffer side-effects from your medication
  • you get an infection.

Find out how to contact your rheumatology team – most have a phone number for advice and urgent appointments.

Managing your medical appointments and medication

Registering with a new GP

If you're moving to a new area, you'll need to register with a GP there. If you get any regular prescriptions from your GP, you'll need to discuss this with the new GP and it's a good idea to take a letter with you from your rheumatologist. 

Know how to make an appointment with your GP and how to use their out-of-hours service. Check where the nearest walk-in centre and accident and emergency services are and how you would get there. You can also contact NHS 111 when you need urgent medical help or advice but it's not a life-threatening situation. 

Registering with a rheumatologist

Talk to your rheumatologist and specialist nurse as soon as you know which university you're going to. You'll need to consider your options about accessing a rheumatologist:

Option
Good if...
Stay with your existing rheumatology team
you're not moving far and can still attend appointments
Transfer to a new rheumatology team near university you usually stay there during term time and holidays
Stay in touch with your existing rheumatology team and meet a new rheumatology team near university
you spend part of the year in each place

Your existing rheumatologist may be able to recommend a rheumatologist in your new area. Alternatively, you should make an appointment with your new GP as soon as possible and ask to be referred to a local rheumatologist. Ask whether there's a rheumatologist who specialises in caring for teenagers and young adults.

If you stay in touch with two rheumatology teams, it's important that just one of the rheumatologists prescribes your medication and has overall responsibility for your care. The other rheumatology service provides a back-up if things change and you need a review.

Your prescribing rheumatologist will need to check any recent blood test results before prescribing some medications. If you have blood tests done somewhere else, you should ask for the results to be sent to the person prescribing your medication or take a copy with you to your next appointment.

If the new rheumatology team will take over prescribing your medication, talk to your existing rheumatologist and specialist nurse as early as possible. It may take several weeks or months from the time a referral letter is sent to your first appointment with the new rheumatologist. If you have medication by injection or infusion, it may then be another few weeks before you receive your first course of treatment.

If you don’t get an appointment with the new rheumatologist in good time to continue your supply of medication, you should contact them, explain the situation and ask for an earlier appointment. Alternatively, contact your existing rheumatology team and arrange to return there temporarily. The sooner you let someone know, the better.

You may have regular appointments with a rheumatologist or specialist nurse, and for blood tests (depending on what medications you take). It's important to attend these appointments or to get in touch to reschedule if you can't attend.

Taking your medication

Taking your medications as prescribed helps to prevent flare-ups. It's a good idea to put a reminder in your diary or calendar to order more medication before you run out.

You're eligible for free prescriptions while you're aged 16–18 years old and in full-time education. After this, you have to pay for your prescriptions unless you qualify for certain benefits, such as Income Support.

The current prescription charge is £8.20 per item. Prescription prepayment certificates (PPC) are available in England. A 12-month certificate costs £104.00 and could save you money if you need 13 or more prescribed items in a year. PPCs are available by 10 monthly direct debit instalments. For more information, visit www.nhs.uk

Being organised

Recording all your appointments in a diary or calendar should help you to remember them. Make sure you save the information in a couple of places in case your diary or phone gets lost.

Carrie, 22, who has rheumatoid arthritis, said: "When I went to university, I had a family organiser calendar, the ones which have different columns for different members of the family.

"I used difference columns for different parts of my life – for example my social life, my studies and my healthcare. I needed two for my healthcare!

"This really helped me to stay organised and all my details of appointments and other important things I needed to remember were in one place. I could see if there was a clash. These calendars are in stationery and book shops."

When Carrie did need urgent medical support while she was living away at university, she found that the 111 NHS telephone service was very good.

"I called them up because I didn't want to be sitting in a hospital waiting room for a long time," Carrie said.

"It allowed me to book an appointment and because they had access to my medical information it meant that they were better prepared to help me."

Friends and socialising

University is a great chance to make new friends, enjoy a vibrant social life and perhaps meet a partner. Read more about relationships.

Friends at university support one another practically and emotionally. Some people prefer to tell all their friends about their arthritis, while others tell very few people. Do what feels right for you, but you may find it helpful to tell at least a few trusted friends who can be more considerate when you're having a bad day and will understand if you opt out of certain activities such as drinking alcohol. Read more about alcohol.

Francesca, 21, who was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis during her teenage years, said: "When I lived away at university, I wanted to socialise but I wanted to do so without drinking. Early on, I told people that I couldn't drink because of the medication I was on and then people didn't ask me if I wanted a drink after that."

University life can be very busy with work and socialising, so don’t push yourself to do absolutely everything. It’s important to:

  • listen to your body
  • plan
  • pace yourself
  • prioritise the activities which are most important to you.

Read more about planning, prioritising and pacing.

While you'll no doubt enjoy the greater freedom that living away from home offers, remember that talking to your parents/carers on a regular basis can be very reassuring and helpful.

Being away from home and looking after yourself for the first time may be difficult and lonely. Most people struggle from time to time and it can help to talk things through with friends, family or a professional. The Student Support Office could look at any extra practical help you might benefit from and put you in touch with a counsellor.

For more information, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org.
Arthritis Research UK fund research into the cause, treatment and cure of arthritis. You can support Arthritis Research UK by volunteering, donating or visiting our shops.