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Kids & Arthritis: Not Just an “Adult” Condition

July 22, 2021

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, approximately 294,000 children in the U.S. under age 18 have arthritis or other rheumatic conditions. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), is the most common type of childhood arthritis. And just as in adults, it causes joint swelling and joint stiffness. It is arthritis that affects one or more joints for at least 6 weeks in a child age 16 or younger. It may begin with a swollen knuckle, a spiking fever, or an unexplained rash. But no matter what symptoms appear, hearing the word “arthritis” in a diagnosis for your child can be unexpected and confusing. 

Like adult rheumatoid arthritis, JIA is an autoimmune disease. That means the immune system, which normally protects the body from foreign substances, attacks the body instead. The disease is also idiopathic, which means that no exact cause is known. Researchers believe juvenile arthritis may be related to genetics, certain infections and environmental triggers. Unlike adult rheumatoid arthritis, which is ongoing and lasts a lifetime, children often outgrow JIA, however, the disease can affect bone development in a growing child.

Juvenile arthritis can cause symptoms that are ongoing, only appear during a flare-up or no symptoms at all. Symptoms can vary and may include: joint stiffness; pain, swelling, and tenderness in the joints; limping; persistent fever; rash; loss of appetite; weight loss; fatigue; irritability; eye redness or pain; blurred vision; or difficulty with activities such as walking, dressing, and playing. 

Diagnosis can be difficult as there is no actual test for juvenile arthritis. The diagnosis is made by excluding other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Accurately diagnosing pediatric rheumatic diseases can be a long and detailed process. There is no single blood test to confirm which type of pediatric rheumatic condition a child may have, so a careful physical exam and thorough medical history should be performed by a rheumatologist, which is an arthritis specialist.

JIA is a chronic condition, meaning it can last for months and years. While there is no cure for juvenile arthritis, sometimes the symptoms just go away with treatment, which is known as remission. Remission may last for months, years, or a person’s lifetime. Many teens with JIA eventually enter full remission with little or no permanent joint damage.

Treatment for juvenile arthritis generally includes both exercise and medications. Exercise plays a large part in reducing the symptoms of arthritis and maintaining range of motion of the joints.  The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and stiffness and help your child keep as normal of a  lifestyle as possible. Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. 

For some youth affected with juvenile arthritis, taking medications like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce inflammation. Some patients need to take medication weekly that can keep the immune system in check and control the disease. For arthritis flare-ups, doctors may also use medicines called corticosteroids. Physical therapy exercises that improve flexibility and the use of heat can help also control JIA symptoms. 

For those suffering with juvenile arthritis, it may be tempting to roll back into bed and sleep the day away, but that can make things worse. Gentle massaging and stretching can help soothe the muscles and ligaments around sore joints. Once a person is up and moving, the discomfort usually lessens. Exercise can help keep full motion in the joints and strengthen muscles and bones. A physical therapist can help you plan an effective exercise program to do at home. Proper nutrition is also important. A positive mental outlook is just as beneficial as exercise and a healthy diet. 

JIA often causes only minor problems, but in some cases, it can cause joint damage or limit growth. Although JIA mostly affects the joints and surrounding tissues, it can also affect other organs like the eyes, liver, heart and lungs. The good news is that most teens with JIA lead normal lives. They go to school, hang out with friends, and stay active physically, academically and socially. 

If you suspect your child may have issues related to juvenile arthritis, West Tennessee Healthcare can help. To find a provider, click here