When you think about arthritis, you may picture a common stereotype: an older adult gently rubbing their wrinkled hands, or aching knees, wincing in pain. But in truth, the word “arthritis” doesn’t mean just one condition. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the word applies to joint pain or joint disease, and could be one of 100 different conditions—including a number of different types of arthritis that impact children and teens, known as juvenile arthritis, or childhood arthritis.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, an estimated 300,000 young people in the United States lives with juvenile arthritis. That’s about one out of every 1,000 kids. While there are a number of different types of juvenile arthritis, most share a common symptom: joint inflammation, which can cause joint pain, stiffness and swelling.
Juvenile arthritis is caused by autoimmune or autoinflammatory responses, according to the Arthritis Foundation. That means that the immune system, which usually protects the body from sicknesses, instead releases a chemical that attacks the body—specifically, the synovium, which is tissue that lines the inside of joints, and the fluid in those joints. Certain types of juvenile arthritis can also affect the skin. One example is a condition called juvenile scleroderma, which causes a person’s skin and connective tissues to harden.
How is juvenile arthritis diagnosed?
Arthritis can sometimes be challenging to diagnose in kids, because there is no single test used to detect it. In some cases, symptoms may be mild, so the child might not notice anything is different, or they may not complain about any pain. Plus, the symptoms may come and go. In other cases, the pain, stiffness and swelling could be much more noticeable. If you think your child might have juvenile arthritis, you should talk with your healthcare provider, who may refer you to a rheumatologist or pediatric rheumatologist. Juvenile arthritis could cause lasting joint and tissue damage, and it may interfere with a child’s growth, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, so building a team of trusted medical professionals is important.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following as possible signs of arthritis in young people:
- Pain in and around the joints
- Swelling in and around the joints
- A fever
- A feeling of stiffness
- A rash on the skin
- A feeling of fatigue, or tiredness that sleep doesn’t seem to help
- A diminished appetite
- Inflammation of the eye
- Difficulty with normal activities that include walking, dressing and playing
How can you help a child with juvenile arthritis?
While there’s no cure for juvenile arthritis, there are ways to treat it, and it’s important to find a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable in this area. According to the American College of Rheumatologists, arthritis can pose challenges, but most kids can expect to live “normal” lives, and some will even see their condition go into remission, which means their symptoms go away and they feel good.
You should rely on your team of healthcare providers to come up with a plan tailored to your child’s needs. In addition, keep in mind some of these general health insights.
- Regular exercise is good. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can help people with juvenile arthritis because it helps develop muscle strength and joint flexibility. Consider swimming, which allows for a great workout without putting excess pressure on the joints.
- Getting enough sleep is critical. When it comes to healthy growth and development, sleep is important for all kids. But for those with arthritis, getting to sleep and staying asleep can be challenging, according to the Arthritis Foundation. If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, find ways to help them, such as prohibiting caffeine in the afternoon or evening; avoiding naps; encouraging exercise; and establishing a regular sleep routine, complete with a dark, cool, quiet room free of distractions.
- Help your child practice healthy, stress-relieving activities. Pain, illness or just feeling “different” can be stressful. Your child may benefit from learning stress relieving techniques, according to the Arthritis Foundation, such as breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation and more. In fact, these could be good skills for the whole family to learn together.
- Use heat and cold as needed. The Arthritis Foundation recommends using heating pads and warm baths to help with stiffness and tired muscles. For pain, use ice packs and cold compresses to help reduce swelling and ease discomfort.
- Build your medical and emotional support team. If you live near a pediatric arthritis center, then you’ll be surrounded by specialists looking out for your child. If not, then your physician can help refer you to the specialists you may need. According to University of Washington’s Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, those could include your child’s regular doctor, along with healthcare provides specializing in pediatric arthritis, ophthalmology, oral surgery, nutrition, orthopedics along with physical and occupational therapy. In addition, consider working with a counselor—on an individual or family basis—to talk through some of the challenges and to get some advice on coping techniques. It may also be helpful to join a support group, whether it’s one that meets in person in your community, online or simply via posts on social media.
- Try eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Because juvenile arthritis involves inflammation, it makes sense that an anti-inflammatory diet could help reduce symptoms, and there’s some evidence supporting that, according to the Arthritis Foundation. If you’re interested in trying an anti-inflammatory diet, stock up on items such as leafy greens, broccoli, cherries and berries, fatty fish, lentils, onions, whole grains, healthy fats and beans. At the same time, avoid indulging in highly processed foods (including fried food and fast food), white bread and pastries, red meat, candy, chips, soda and items with added sugar.
Juvenile arthritis impacts every child, and every family differently. But all of the sources referenced in this article share the same advice with parents: do what you can to help your child live their life to the fullest. That means they should attend school, play sports that interest them and participate in social activities and other endeavors that bring joy and fulfillment—just like any other kid.