You might think you know what the word arthritis encompasses: pain in the joints of an older person. But the reality is that there are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and they don’t discriminate by race, sex or age.
Unfortunately, about 300,000 children and teens live with the swelling, joint pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion that comes with childhood arthritis, otherwise known as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). In fact, there are nine different types of JIA, and only about 10 percent of children have the kind of arthritis that mirrors rheumatoid arthritis in adults.
What was often brushed off as mere “growing pains” is now taken more seriously as we know so much more about the onset of this disease.
What’s really happening?
For reasons mostly unknown, a child’s immune system malfunctions and decides to attack the body and joints. This typically happens before the age of 16, and it results in swelling and pain in one or more joints for about six weeks. But it can also include a variety of symptoms such as muscle and soft-tissue tightening, bone erosion, misalignment of joints and growth-pattern changes.
Watch for these symptoms:
- Your child may complain about joint or muscle pain in the morning, after a nap or after a day of strenuous physical activity. Common areas include the knees, hands, feet, neck or jaw. If over-the-counter pain relief medication does not help, and the pain is equally in both sides of the body, visit the pediatrician.
- Another sign is when a child holds a limb in the same position because it hurts to move it. Or, a child with leg pain might limp. You may also notice that pain and soreness is worse when the child first wakes up, but then gets better as he begins to move around.
- You’ll also want to watch for an inflammation on the skin. Usually this happens around painful joints. You’ll hear things like, “My skin feels hot in this area,” and it may even feel warm to the touch. This symptom may come and go, and it usually affects the hands, knees and feet.
- Fevers that are accompanied by malaise or fatigue and joint discomfort. You may notice the fevers come at similar times each day, and don’t stay for very long.
- Look for light pink rashes on the knuckles, cheeks and nose. These are different than eczema, and they might not itch at all. You’ll also notice a rash on the trunk, arms and legs that persists for days or weeks.
- If your child acts fatigued, isn’t hungry or is losing weight visit the pediatrician. This, in combination with other JIA symptoms, might be a sign of juvenile arthritis.
- Persistent redness, pain or blurred vision in the eye could be a sign of something more serious happening within the body.
Diagnosis for JIA is based on a physical exam, lab tests and family medical history. There will also be a rheumatoid factor blood test to help further diagnose a subset of JIA. Your child’s pediatrician will ask you to watch the symptoms closely for the next six or so weeks. Depending on how the symptoms unfold in this time, the doctor will want to wait another six months after onset in order to properly diagnose and create a treatment plan. This has to do with the number of joints affected during this time, and all the medical research gathered on your child up to this point.
Additions to the doctor’s orders
The best support you and your child can get is from others facing the same diagnosis. You can find JA camps through The Arthritis Foundation and visit Kids Get Arthritis, Too for all kinds of JIA information. Read about your child’s educational rights, and find out about national JIA conferences and webinars that’ll keep you up to date on the latest findings.
Other ways to stay connected are through social media: Twitter @ArthritisFdn and Facebook. The Arthritis Foundation has a blog that’ll keep you informed and inspired. Posted daily are new articles on treatment, research and personal stories that will show you – and your child – there are thousands of people overcoming the challenges of daily life with arthritis. And you can, too.