Arthritis is a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders consisting of more than 100 different diseases or conditions that destroy joints, bones, muscles, cartilage and other connective tissues, hampering or halting physical movement. Juvenile arthritis (JA) is an umbrella term used to describe the many autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that can develop in children ages 16 and younger.
No known cause has been pinpointed for most forms of juvenile arthritis, nor is there evidence to suggest that toxins, foods or allergies cause children to develop the disease. Some research points toward a genetic predisposition, which means the combination of genes a child receives from family members may cause the onset of arthritis when triggered by other factors.
The most common symptom of all types of juvenile arthritis is persistent joint swelling, pain, and stiffness that is typically worse in the morning or after a nap. The pain may limit movement of the affected joint, although many children, especially younger ones, will not complain of pain. JA commonly affects the knees and the joints in the hands and feet. One of the earliest signs of JA may be limping in the morning because of an affected knee. Besides joint symptoms, children with systemic JA have a high fever and a skin rash. The rash and fever may appear and disappear very quickly. Systemic arthritis also may cause the lymph nodes located in the neck and other parts of the body to swell. In some cases (fewer than half), internal organs including the heart and (very rarely) the lungs, may be involved.
The most important step in properly treating your child’s JA is getting an accurate diagnosis. The diagnostic process can be long and detailed, but be patient. Your child’s pediatrician will likely recommend that you visit a pediatric rheumatologist who will then take a complete health history to determine the length of time and type of symptoms present.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for juvenile arthritis. The goal of treatment for JA is to relieve inflammation, control pain and improve your child’s quality of life. Most treatment plans involve a combination of medication, physical activity, eye care and healthy eating.
Having arthritis will affect your entire family, but you can maintain a sense of calm and normalcy. Stick to as many of your child's daily routines and comforting habits as possible. Having arthritis should be part of your child’s life — not the central focus of his life.