Arthritis is often associated with age, and when I say “age,” we usually think of people getting arthritis as they get older. But that’s not the complete picture. The Arthritis Foundation reports that an estimated 300,000 children in the US suffer from a form of the disease known as juvenile arthritis.
July is Juvenile Arthritis Awareness Month. This is a good time to learn more about this childhood affliction. There are many types of juvenile arthritis, but we’ll concentrate on the most common form, juvenile idiopathic arthritis or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
When something is referred to as idiopathic, it means the exact cause of the problem is unknown. Experts do know that juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, a disorder that leads the body’s own protective immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues. This disorder causes inflammation in the tissue that lines the inside of joints, leading to pain and dysfunction.
Each of the different forms of juvenile arthritis has its own set of signs and symptoms, but some of the most common symptoms, especially with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Joint stiffness, especially in the morning
- Pain and tenderness
- Joint swelling
- Redness and warmth
- Limping and difficulty walking
- Reduced activity level
- Difficulty doing daily activities
Juvenile arthritis can affect one or many joints. In addition, it can also affect the eyes, skin, muscles and gastrointestinal tract. Juvenile arthritis afflicts children of any age, but most often occurs in those age 16 or younger.
Diagnosing juvenile rheumatoid arthritis can be a challenge. Early in the course of the disease, pain may be minimal and joint swelling may not be obvious. There are no tests to diagnose the problem, and a blood test that helps diagnose rheumatoid arthritis in adults is not definitive for children. The diagnosis is made based on your child’s medical history, the physical examination and the exclusion of other possible reasons for the symptoms.
If you suspect juvenile arthritis, it’s best to contact a specialist in arthritic conditions, such as a pediatric rheumatologist. The doctor is actually part of a team providing care to your child. Other members of the team include physical and occupational therapists, nurses, possibly a social worker, and other doctors to treat problems associated with the arthritis.
There is no cure for juvenile arthritis. However if it is diagnosed early on and the proper treatment is given, the condition can go into remission. That’s when your child has responded well to treatment and no longer has symptoms. The disease is still there, it just isn’t active.
The goals of treatment for juvenile arthritis are to control symptoms, prevent joint damage and maintain function. The treatments used are aimed at relieving pain, reducing swelling and increasing joint mobility and strength. While each form of juvenile arthritis has its own treatment, care for rheumatoid arthritis generally includes targeted exercises, medication and a healthy lifestyle.
Your child may be the one with juvenile arthritis, but it affects the entire family. But family members can help by being supportive and treating the child as normally as possible. Here are some other things you can do, courtesy of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases:
- Get to know your child’s disease. Learn all you can about it.
- Consider joining a juvenile arthritis support group.
- Encourage your child to do the exercises taught by the physical and occupation therapists.
- Stay in touch with your child’s school to help make school tasks as easy as possible.
- Most of all, keep an open dialogue with your child about the disease, its symptoms and treatments.