Joanne Clifton: ‘I had osteoarthritis when I won Strictly’

The condition doesn’t just affect older people (Picture: Mike Marsland / WireImage)

Even the most avid Strictly Come Dancing fan might have missed Joanne Clifton limping up the stairs after her winning dance with Ore Oduba in 2016.

But professional dancer Joanne has now revealed she was battling osteoarthritis during the season when she took the title with Ore and even the world championships two years earlier.

While training in Italy in 2012, Joanne, now 38, would hear cracking noises in her knees when she bent down. She put it down to just working hard but during the Strictly Tour in 2015 her knee swelled up massively and she couldn’t move it.

Medical experts helped her to carry on but following the tour she had an MRI scan, and the diagnosis was osteoarthritis.

‘The initial feeling after the MRI is panic, obviously, because of my career — I’d just done my first year on Strictly and wasn’t planning on leaving, and then was planning on going into musicals and still dancing. [I realised] that I had won the world championships with osteoarthritis in my knee.

When I won Strictly, I was limping up the stairs to meet Claudia [Winkleman]. I was strapped up. But I did win it.’

But Joanne was worried about people’s reaction. Osteoarthritis, she thought, was something that only affected old people and she wouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact it can affect any age group — around 12,000 under-16s in the UK are estimated to have arthritis.

And it isn’t a single condition — there are estimated to be more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions — rather, it is used to describe pain, swelling and stiffness in a joint or joints.

‘The diagnosis was also a bit embarrassing,’ says Joanne. ‘I remember calling my mum and dad and feeling a bit embarrassed, everyone thinks it’s for old people. I don’t know why it’s like that. I was 31 at the time and thought people would find it funny and not take it seriously.’

Joanne won Strictly Come Dancing with partner Ore Oduba in 2016 (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)

Joanne won Strictly Come Dancing with partner Ore Oduba in 2016 (Picture: Alamy Stock Photo)
The condition affects lots of dancers like Joanne (Picture: Richard Stonehouse / Getty Images)

Arthritis is quite common within the dancing community, with a lot of dancers experiencing it in their hips and knees. Coming to terms with her condition and speaking out about it, Joanne noticed many more people coming forward and having conversations about arthritis.

Recently, when coaching online, she was contacted by mothers of children as young as nine saying they had arthritis and thought their dancing careers were over before they had begun.

‘I turned it round,’ says Joanne defiantly. ‘I saw it as a challenge and decided my career is not over. I’m not going to let it get to me, if others can live with it, so can I.’

Taking regular exercise is an important part of managing Joanne’s arthritis, and a lack of physical activity, such as during lockdown, can exacerbate her symptoms.

She continues to dance — starring as Morticia in musical The Addams Family — but now is now open with choreographers, who she says are always happy to help tweak dance moves to make them lower impact.

Arthritis sufferers also notice how the changing weather affects their condition.

Joanne works with Arthr, a social venture powered by the charity Versus Arthritis. Arthr is advising people to protect their joint health after their recent study found that 86% of people living with arthritis experience flare-ups at this time of year, impacting productivity and affecting their ability to work.

Alongside taking supplements such as Vitamin D for bone cartilage and health, Joanne uses an Arthr Long Hot Water Bottle as part of her bedtime routine to ensure that her joints are kept warm throughout the night and a Car Door Mate. She exercises regularly but avoids high impact sports like running.

‘Day to day, it’s funny, I tell people I’m like a cow — cows can walk upstairs but don’t like going downstairs. Through lockdown I would go for long walks and take in some hills — walking up is fine but walking down is… phew. I would have to walk sideways down the hill, and my friend would walk down sideways, too.’

Doing more musical theatre is what Joanne always wanted to do and she feels satisfied with her career to date, with or without arthritis.

‘I am happy with my dancing career, and have achieved what I want to achieve,’ she says. ‘I sometimes wonder how many dancers [with arthritis] think their career is over? It’s not — I’m living proof of that.’

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease historically known as a ‘wear and tear’ condition.

It most commonly affects those over 45, but it can also attack younger people who have been highly active, increasing wear on their joints, or who have had a prior joint injury.

A disease of the whole joint, including bone, cartilage, ligaments, fat and the tissues lining the joint, it can degrade cartilage, change bone shape and cause inflammation resulting in pain, stiffness and loss of mobility.

OA can affect any joint, but typically is found in knees, hands, hips, lower back and the neck. It usually develops slowly over time but can appear more rapidly after a joint injury.

People with family members who have had OA are more likely to develop it and women are more susceptible than men.

OA is the most common joint disease worldwide, with a third of women and almost a quarter of men aged between 45 and 65 seeking treatment, according to Arthritis Foundation UK.

The knee is the most commonly affected joint, with some 18% of the UK population over 45 seeking treatment.

Symptoms include pain when you walk, particularly when walking up or down hills or stairs, and stiffness when you have been sitting or resting for a while. Sometimes your knees may ‘give way’ beneath you. You may also hear a soft, grating sound when you move the affected joint.

It usually takes only an examination by your GP to diagnose OA. There is no cure for the condition but doctors will often recommend a combination of therapies — such as painkillers and exercises — to provide relief.

As a last resort, a damaged joint may be surgically fused or replaced with one made of a combination of metal, plastic and/or ceramic.

Preventative tactics can include maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood sugar (high glucose levels can make cartilage stiffer and more likely to break down) and finding ways to reduce stress, such as meditation.

Good posture and moderate regular exercise are also recommended.

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