When you hear “Arthritis” you think “that’s an old person’s disease,” right? But children can get arthritis too. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 294,000 children in the United States, or one in 250, have been diagnosed with juvenile arthritis or another type of rheumatic condition. In fact, rheumatic diseases affect more children than other childhood diseases combined.
The most common type of arthritis found in children is called Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, and there are several different forms. Juvenile arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks some of the body’s healthy cells and tissues. Affected children carry a gene that makes him or her predisposed to get arthritis and then a virus triggers the disease.
What are the Symptoms?
Children experience the same symptoms as adults – pain, stiffness, swelling – which are usually attributed to a cold or flu or an allergic reaction. Diagnosis is difficult because symptoms can recede and flare up over time. Combined with the tendency that children easily catch the flu and the perception that arthritis is an adult disease, juvenile arthritis is often overlooked.
Being aware of the common symptoms of juvenile arthritis may help parents recognize the possibility that their child may have something more than the flu or an allergic reaction. Parents should take note if their child complains of stiffness and pain in their knees, hands, and feet, especially if it’s worse in the morning or after a nap. They should also pay attention if their child’s joints seem to be swollen, if he or she is excessively clumsy, tired, or has a loss in appetite. Sometimes juvenile arthritis can occur in areas outside of a joint, for example in the eye.
How is Juvenile Arthritis Treated?
It’s important for children with Juvenile Arthritis to be as physically active as possible. Exercise can ease symptoms and positively affect the range of motion in joints. Each child is different, and treatments to relieve and reduce pain and swelling will be geared towards the individual child. Early and aggressive treatment of juvenile arthritis can prevent complications later in life.
What Are Researchers Trying to Learn About Juvenile Arthritis?
Scientists are looking for the possible causes of juvenile arthritis, studying genetic and environmental factors that they think are involved. They are also trying to improve current treatments and find new medicines that will work better with fewer side effects. With continued awareness and research, there is always hope that better treatments and a cure will be found.
As a Rheumatology specialist at OrthoIllinois, I see patients as young as 13, and the most important thing I tell families is that Juvenile Arthritis can affect everyone on an emotional, social and financial level. For parents, it can feel very lonely because even though friends and family are concerned, they may not be able to understand what a juvenile arthritis diagnosis can do to a family. And for my young patients, trying to stay as active and social as possible can make a huge difference in dealing with the disease.