A rider who suffered the debilitating pain of endometriosis for years until she was eventually diagnosed wants to raise awareness of the condition, and the support available.
Showjumper Ella Richardson was told repeatedly by doctors that nothing was wrong with her, despite the severity and frequency of the pain she suffered.
Endometriosis is a condition in which cells similar to the womb lining grow elsewhere. They behave in the same way as the womb lining; thickening and then shedding, but as there is no way for them to exit the body, they become trapped, which can lead to lesions, cysts and scar tissue.
Sufferers usually experience severe pelvic pain but, as Ella told H&H, because the symptoms are generalised, the condition is hard to diagnose.
“For me, it’s just pain,” she said. “It’s all the time; mainly in the right side of my pelvis, but it shoots down my leg and into my back so at its worst, I’m on the floor in the foetal position – and I know then I won’t be riding that day.”
Ella, 23, has suffered since she was a teenager, when she was “pumped full of painkillers” to get through the day.
“It’s been a really frustrating and pretty upsetting process,” she said. “They say it often takes seven to 10 years to diagnose; I’ve been told it might be appendicitis, irritable bowel syndrome or an ectopic pregnancy, but they could never find anything as it doesn’t show up on scans.
“The killer was when a doctor asked if I had mental health issues. I said I had a fairly stressful job and competed in a stressful sport and she said she thought it was related to anxiety – that it was all in my head.”
Eventually, Ella saw a specialist, who suspected endometriosis and confirmed this via a laparoscopy – keyhole surgery to diagnose the condition and remove the offending cells – in January.
Ella said she had three pain-free weeks before the cells grew back but now the pain has returned, although less severely than before.
“It sounds crazy but I was so excited to have a diagnosis; I didn’t really think it would be something I’d have to live with,” she said. “I’ll probably have to have more surgery and I’ve been trying to map out my life. For some women, having children inhibits growth of the cells and I’ve been thinking do I have a child when I’m 27 or 28; can I have children? How does that fit the showjumping in?”
Ella is now looking at pain management, adding that she is lucky to be able to work flexibly and from home, and trying to plan on how to cope should she have a flare-up at a show. She is competing her 11-year-old Irish mare Pandora at Foxhunter level and had planned to jump abroad this year.
“What’s pulled me through all this was how quickly could I get back on a horse,” she said. “But I know I’m not the only rider in this situation.
“I know three women, two professionals, who say they’ve got similar symptoms but are being bounced around the NHS – which is a fantastic system and I’m not knocking them, but it’s so hard to diagnose – and I want to raise more awareness of the condition.”
‘If something does happen, I know I’ve had a fulfilling life; that’s all anyone can ask for’
The show has become the latest to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic
If you want to keep up with the latest from the equestrian world without leaving home, grab a H&H subscription
Ella also wants to highlight the mental health support she has had from doctors and social media groups, as well as her family and friend Jade Hall who looked after Pandora, and let other sufferers know that there is help available.
“It can be so degrading, being told there’s nothing wrong with you but you know your own body,” she said. “Resiliency is key; be relentless. Really push for the diagnosis.
“I think we get told a lot as females that things are all in our heads but push if you know something isn’t right.”
Would you like to read Horse & Hound’s independent journalism without any adverts? Join Horse & Hound Plus today and you can read all articles on HorseandHound.co.uk completely ad-free