A doctor examining a child's leg.
Every year, 50,000 children are affected by juvenile arthritis.

What is Juvenile Arthritis?

Did you know that people who suffer from arthritis of any form are usually over the age of 50? However, arthritis does occasionally strike younger people, even children. Juvenile arthritis is a broad term that refers to chronic joint inflammation in people under the age of 16.

The vast majority of juvenile arthritis cases are idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis, which is essentially the same as the adult version, it just occurs in children. This is an autoimmune disorder, caused by the immune system attacking the joints. 50,000 children a year are affected by idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis, and as of now there is no cure.

This article will discuss some of the causes and symptoms of juvenile arthritis, as well as options for treatment and prevention.

What Causes Arthritis in Children?

Most cases fall under idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis. This is because the type of joint degradation that leads to osteoarthritis is unlikely to occur in young, growing children.

Any sort of rheumatoid arthritis, regardless of the age of the patient, is caused by the immune system attacking the joints. While your body needs inflammatory responses to fight diseases, they also cause the painful symptoms of arthritis.

Unfortunately, there is no known cause of idiopathic rheumatoid arthritis (this is what the word idiopathic means). The disease occasionally runs in families, so heredity might play a role. The disease is also more common in boys than girls, though the reason for this is not known.

Symptoms of Juvenile Arthritis

The symptoms are generally the same as arthritis in adults. The key characteristic is that it occurs in children. Symptoms include:

  • Stiffness, pain, swelling, and tenderness in the joints
  • Limping or failure to perform motor skills
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Eye redness or eye pain
  • Blurred vision

An additional, longer-term symptom may be stunted growth. In some cases, arthritis can hamper a child’s normal growth, or they may be prescribed certain steroidal medications that interfere with growth.

Juvenile arthritis can be difficult to diagnose, because children may not display all symptoms right away. The symptoms may also resemble other illnesses or a normal injury. Moreover, some pediatricians may go their whole careers without seeing a case of juvenile arthritis, since it is quite rare. So, they may not always know how to spot it right away.

Treatments for Juvenile Arthritis

Unfortunately, there is no single cure for juvenile arthritis. Some children may “outgrow” their illness and others may continue to experience symptoms throughout their life. Others may see their disease go into remission for long periods only to return for individual flares. It varies case by case.

Most of the treatments for juvenile arthritis focus around managing the symptoms and curbing the immune response of the body.

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Medications for juvenile arthritis include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These may reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling and are available in weaker formulations over the counter. They can also be prescribed in higher doses.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These attempt to combat the underlying disease, not just the painful symptoms. They take a long time to begin to work, so they will usually be combined with other treatments.
  • Corticosteroids: In children, these are reserved for only severe cases. They can prevent inflammation from spreading to vital organs, but also come with side effects, like hampered growth.
  • Biologics: These are drugs that dampen the immune system by targeting specific proteins. These are generally reserved for when other treatment options don’t work, since dampening the immune system can be dangerous and lead to a greater risk of infection.

An additional treatment for juvenile arthritis is physical therapy. While children get plenty of activity, it is important to incorporate physical therapy into juvenile arthritis treatment to make sure that the child is developing strong muscles and can move safely.

Behavioral and mental health are also important considerations for patients with juvenile arthritis. Chronic pain can be especially difficult on children. Children may grow depressed and frustrated if they cannot do the same things as their peers. This can in turn make symptoms worse.

Preventing Juvenile Arthritis

As with many idiopathic illnesses, juvenile arthritis is very difficult to prevent. This is because we do not adequately understand what causes it, so it is difficult to recognize children who are more likely to develop the disease.

For children with a potential genetic predisposition for arthritis, there may be some benefit to certain preventative measures, like breastfeeding probiotics, avoiding tobacco smoke, and not taking unnecessary antibiotics. But this is not well understood or proven.

However, in most cases, the disease is neither predictable nor preventable. The best way to stay one step ahead of this illness is to keep yourself informed so you can recognize it in children you love. While children with this disease may never be completely free of symptoms, the sooner they can be diagnosed and treated, the better chance they stand of living a perfectly happy and productive life.