Kids can get arthritis too. And according to the Arthritis Foundation, juvenile arthritis affects 300,000 babies, children and teens in the US. Although you may not have heard of it, Michael Elliott, MD, head of the Department of Pediatric Orthopedics and Scoliosis at Renown Children’s Hospital, helps us to understand what it is and the options for treatment.
What is Juvenile Arthritis?
Juvenile arthritis is a painful, autoimmune disease of the joints (where bones meet). It typically affects children ages 2-4 and a second peak occurs when children are 9 years old. Surprisingly, it occurs twice as often in girls.
Juvenile arthritis means your immune system is confused. Instead of protecting you against germs and viruses, it attacks your joints. It usually involves one or more joints, with swelling present for at least 6 weeks. Specifically the knee is commonly affected, but it can also involve wrists, fingers, knees or elbows.
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), is the most common type of arthritis in children. Notably the cause of juvenile arthritis is a mystery. Scientists are still looking for answers, but, clues point to a possible genetic connection. However, we do know you cannot catch it from another person.
Signs of Juvenile Arthritis
- Joint pain and swelling
- Stiffness in the morning
- Walking differently
Living with Invisible Pain
Having juvenile arthritis is challenging. First, your child experiences pain whether a joint appears swollen or not. Secondly, the pain comes and goes. With this in mind, your child will have good and bad days. Some days your child may feel bad in the morning, but feel better in the evening. Other days it can be the opposite. Juvenile arthritis also involves more than the joints. Some types of JA can also make children really sick.
Symptoms may include:
- High fever
- Skin rash
- Loss of vision
- Harm to the heart, lungs or other organs
Juvenile Arthritis Treatment
“Fortunately, there are multiple medications which can help your child’s symptoms,” says Dr. Elliott. “These combined with physical therapy can prevent many of the joint problems occurring from juvenile arthritis. In general, draining the joint fluid is rarely helpful as the fluid will build up again.”
Dr. Elliott adds, “In some cases, a steroid injection into the joint can provide relief from joint pain and swelling, helping to speed recovery. For some kids good periods, or remissions, may last a while. Other kids may get better with age.” Currently, there is no cure for juvenile arthritis. Dr. Elliott suggests a pediatric rheumatologist manage cases of juvenile arthritis.
School difficulties for Kids with Juvenile Arthritis
Working with your child’s school and being an advocate for your child will help their learning success. It is beneficial to understand and develop a school plan for your child. Learn about Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan accommodations and educational options for juvenile arthritis (JA).
These school activities can be hard for a child with JA:
- Walking far
- Carrying books
- Holding a pencil
- Playing at recess
How Juvenile Arthritis Affects Growing Bones
In particular, kids with JA have weakened bones. They are just like any other kids, but it may take them longer to do everyday activities. “Because their joints are painful they are resistant to move them and they can become stiff making it difficult to walk, “ states Dr. Elliott. “Due to inflammation around the knee this can cause the knee to grow abnormally resulting in being knock kneed.”
Managing Juvenile Arthritis Symptoms
Most importantly, have ways to help your child manage their JA. Warm Epsom salt baths, massages and heating packs may soothe joint pain and swelling.
Tips to Build Strong Bones
- Use steroids sparingly. When steroids are needed, use the lowest dose for the shortest amount of time, to control the pain.
- Eat bone-building food. A healthy diet rich in calcium can help maintain bone health and reduce bone loss.
- Get moving. Bone is living tissue and needs exercise to remain strong. Swimming and walking are good options.
- Enjoy the sunshine. Sunlight is a good source of vitamin D, needed to keep bones strong.
- Track growing bones. Check with your doctor about bone density tests to monitor bone health.
Related: Well Visits for Your Kids
In spite of the serious effect on bones, new treatment approaches can help better control JA. Modern methods to find, and treat, bone loss are also making a definite difference. By encouraging healthy lifestyle habits and working with your child’s doctor, you can help protect your child’s bone health.
Dr. Elliott shares encouraging words for JA parents, “Although this can be a difficult time for your child, with good medical management the disease usually resolves, but it can take up to three years. On the positive side, over half the cases resolve within the first year or two.”