A lot of people tend to associate arthritis with old age but children get arthritis, too. Data from the Arthritis Foundation shows that nearly 300,000 kids and teens in the US are affected by some form of joint disease, and 50,000 are diagnosed with juvenile arthritis (JA).
JA is the most common type of pediatric arthritis, which is characterized by inflamed joints that can cause pain, swelling, and a limited range of motion.
Growing up with arthritis can be challenging, but most children diagnosed with the condition live full and active lives as long as they receive the right treatment. Regardless of the type of arthritis, early diagnosis and treatment can go a long way in avoiding serious joint damage.
The best way to help your child manage JA lies in understanding what drives their pain, and helping develop a comprehensive treatment plan.
What is Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis?
JA is the most common type of arthritis that develops in children under the age of 16. Keep in mind, however, that JA isn’t a specific disease — rather, it’s an umbrella term that describes the inflammatory and rheumatic diseases that afflict children.
Most types of JA are an autoimmune disorder. To take that idea further, the immune system of a person diagnosed with JA ends up attacking healthy cells and tissue instead of protecting the body from viruses and germs. In turn, this causes joint inflammation, swelling, and pain.
Signs of Juvenile Arthritis
Most types of JA start in toddlerhood and children with the condition show symptoms such as joint swelling and stiffness, rashes, and fevers. These symptoms could easily be dismissed as a simple flu or viral bug, however.
Moreover, toddlers tend to be rowdy and playful, so joint swelling and stiffness could be easy to miss. Some parents only start to get suspicious when their kid gets into an accident (like bumping their knee on a seesaw, for instance), and they notice that one joint looks different from the other.
With that said, here are some juvenile arthritis symptoms for you to watch out for:
- Joint stiffness, especially in the morning
- Joint swelling
- Reduced activity
- Difficulty with fine motor activities
- Persistent fevers
Diagnosing Juvenile Arthritis
JA is hard to spot, and it’s even harder to pin down its exact cause. Children with JA suffer from a malfunctioning immune system, which targets the lining of their joints and causes inflammation. When left untreated, the inflammation could result in joint damage. The cause behind the immune system malfunction is still unknown, but hereditary, dietary, and emotional factors could play a part.
The good news is that JA is treatable. A rheumatologist (or a doctor with specialized training in treating arthritis) will ask about your child’s symptoms, medical history, and family history. They may also perform a physical exam to rule out other causes like trauma or infection, and identify if signs of JA are present. Finally, they can provide a quick and accurate JA diagnosis through an ultrasound of your child’s joints.
Treating Juvenile Arthritis
Perhaps you’ve asked yourself: Does juvenile arthritis go away? The answer isn’t set in stone, however. Since JA is a chronic condition, it could last for months or years. In some cases, the symptoms can go away with treatment, and other teens with JA enter full remission with little to no joint damage.
Living with JA can be tough, but an early diagnosis can go a long way in helping your kid reduce their symptoms. A well-rounded treatment plan includes medication, physical exercise, complementary therapy (such as massage and acupuncture), and a healthy diet.
The overall goal is to relieve inflammation and restore overall joint function to boost your kid’s physical, social, and emotional development.
Physical therapy (PT) can help improve your child’s quality of life by teaching them how to stay active. Since it focuses on improving body movement, a physical therapist can help develop an individualized plan of exercises to improve your kid’s flexibility, strength, and coordination.
Some things your child can learn during a PT session include:
- Maintaining a proper posture
- Following proper mechanics for common, everyday activities
- Using assistive devices such as braces, splints, or hand grips
- Making the necessary environmental modifications, such as using ergonomic chairs or cushioned mats
PT sessions are often short (about an hour) and focus on identifying problems with physical function. Your physical therapist will provide useful, at-home pain-relief strategies.
A chiropractic doctor treats neuromuscular conditions, so chiropractic care can help your kid manage JA symptoms. Chiropractors follow techniques that can relieve the stiffness, soreness, and pain accompanied by the condition.
Similar to physical therapy, a chiropractor can provide lifestyle counselling to help in reducing joint inflammation. They will develop a comprehensive movement plan to keep your kid active or suggest nutrition and dietary changes to keep your child in optimal condition.
Frequent injections are a reality for children with JA. Some injections they may have to take include:
- DMARDs – DMARDs are a class of drugs that relieve JA symptoms by suppressing your child’s immune system so it doesn’t attack their joints. Even though this drug is available as pills, they are commonly injected or given by transfusion by a doctor.
- Corticosteroids – Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory drugs that a doctor can administer via injection. They are quick-acting and can help your kid manage symptoms until their medications start taking effect.
On top of getting injections, some medicine may also require frequent monitoring through blood work. Some kids may feel squeamish at the thought of another shot, so the procedure could turn into a traumatic experience for your kid.
To reduce the pain, don’t forget to apply ice packs before and after the shot. If possible, allow your child to select where the shot is given to help ease their anxiety. You may also want to conduct a distraction activity, such as watching TV or blowing bubbles before the procedure, to help your child get their mind off the pain.
Lifestyle & Home Remedies
Simple self-care techniques can go a long way in relieving JA symptoms. These lifestyle changes include:
- Regular exercise – Exercise is a must for your kid because it helps promote muscle strength and joint mobility. In particular, swimming is a good sport for your child to get into because it places minimal stress on joints.
- Cold and heat treatment – Your child may experience joint stiffness, especially right after waking up. Use a heat pad or let them take a warm bath to sooth stiff joints and tired muscles. Cold applications, on the other hand, are best for acute pain because it can help numb the affected area and reduce inflammation.
- Balanced diet – A balanced diet can help your child maintain a healthy weight to put less stress on the joints. Taking foods rich in calcium is important because children with JA are at risk of developing weak bones.
Depending on the severity of the case, your child can take painkillers. Keep in mind that this type of medication can help relieve pain but doesn’t prevent joint damage or change the course of the disease.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common type of medication that can help relieve the pain and stiffness that accompanies JA. Since NSAIDs are inexpensive and available over-the-counter (OTC), they are one of the first types of medication prescribed to people with achy joints. Its pain-relieving effects can be felt within a few hours, but it may take up to two weeks before swelling in your kid’s joints get better.
Providing Emotional Support
Sometimes, all your kid needs is strong emotional support to get by.
As much as possible, treat your kid like the other children in your family. It also helps to listen to their grievances and let them express anger at having JA. Talk to them about the condition, and explain that it wasn’t caused by anything that he or she did.
But even if your child is faced by additional challenges caused by JA, it doesn’t have to stand in the way of school or other activities. Familiarize yourself with Federal Act 504, which can help provide your kid with special accommodations at school. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your community — summer camps and events can give your child the opportunity to meet other kids with the condition so they won’t feel alone.
Manage Arthritis by Partnering with LifeClinic
Support your child on his or her journey to recovery. At LifeClinic, we provide chiropractic, rehabilitation, and physical therapy services to improve your kid’s quality of life. We aim to restore, maintain, and optimize human function so that your child’s body performs at its best. Book your appointment by finding a LifeClinic near you.