Mona Marabani, president of Arthritis Australia told a group of politicians in Canberra, that people do not know enough about the autoimmune disease that generally strikes people aged 20 to 50.

Dr Marabani said people who experience persistent painful and swollen joints should not ignore the pain.

We want everybody to understand that rheumatoid arthritis is a serious disease, she said during the launch of Women's Insights to Rheumatoid Arthritis. It causes major disability and it can even shorten live, added Dr Marabani.

Doctors are still not equipped to recognize the symptoms, despite the seriousness of the disease.

Our doctors are trained in the hospital system and it's very unusual for them to see cases of early rheumatoid arthritis in this setting, said Dr Marabani. Most defects in the joints occur in the first two years, which makes early diagnosis very important.

She said, We have good treatment now which can halt or slow the progression of joint damage.

Hayley Foyster, 34, sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis told the gathering she thought her life was over when she was diagnosed at the age of 13. She turned to recreational drugs and other rebellious behaviour but eventually found relief and a way back through swimming.

She then became a swimming instructor, and is paid to do hydrotherapy. She now has two children.

Everything's on the inside, she says of the disease. Unless you have quite obvious deformities, you look completely normal. Ms Foyster said that her family is what keeps her going when the pain is unbearable.