Arthritis Isn't Just for Older Adults: How to Spot It in Your Child

Young girl walks with her parents at the park
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Kids are rough and tumble. It's hard to remember which bump or bruise is from which accident and it's easy to mistake aches and stiffness for growing pains. But what if your child's pain is a sign of something more? Often, labeling your child's complaints as "growing pains" can conceal more than it clarifies. Behind this well-known explanation for kids with pain lurks a condition that can sound like a contradiction.

Yes, kids can get arthritis, too. Actually, with about 300,000 children having some form of arthritis, it is among the most common childhood diseases, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Because it is not well known, juvenile arthritis is also one of the most undertreated conditions in childhood, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing about juvenile arthritis, watching out for symptoms and seeking medical care can spare your child the pain and confusion of an untreated long-term condition.

Though there is no cure, medical attention can shorten the course of the illness and manage individual symptoms to help your child live get the most out of their life.

Aches Without the Age

Our joints absorb the shock of everyday impacts and allow for smooth movement because they’re covered in cartilage, a flexible tissue.

The breakdown of this material can happen in many ways, which are collectively referred to as arthritis. In older adults, arthritis is often caused by simple wear and tear, as collagen is worn away over time.

In children, the cause is different. The most common type of childhood arthritis is called juvenile idiopathic arthritis; the word idiopathic means the cause is unknown. It is thought to be caused when genes that predispose a child to arthritis are triggered by something in their environment, such as a virus.

Children with this condition possess an immune system that, for an unknown reason, turns on their joints, attacking healthy tissues. After the joint is inflamed, it stiffens, suffers damage and has its growth changed, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Many children will naturally outgrow juvenile arthritis. But if their bones are sent off-course, long-term damage can persist into adulthood.

How to Spot It?

As with all forms of arthritis, swelling in the joints is its most common sign. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, others include:

  • Joint pain
  • Difficulty with walking, dressing, playing and other daily activities
  • Fever
  • Stiffness
  • Rash
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inflammation of the eye

Young children with the condition may also limp, or just say they hurt.

Because so many of these symptoms have a multitude of causes, only your doctor can diagnose juvenile arthritis. Your doctor may refer your child to a pediatric orthopedic specialist who will perform a series of tests to rule out other potential causes.

AdventHealth has invested in several orthopedics programs with experienced teams of experts who know treating children takes a compassionate approach that enlists the entire family in treatment.

A Range of Severity

Elbows and knees may come to mind when we think of joints, but we have dozens of them in our bodies, from the jaw to the toes.

The severity of juvenile arthritis tends to hinge upon how many joints are affected. In some cases, only a single joint is affected, while in others more than five joints are involved. Both of these types of juvenile arthritis are more common in girls than boys.

A third type, the least common, can affect the entire body, usually accompanied by a rash and high fever.

Flare-up and Remission

Unlike diseases that slowly get worse or others that start intense but ease with time, juvenile arthritis is more like a series of peaks and valleys.

There can be times of little or no symptoms, during which a child is in remission, followed by intense periods of pain and disability. Management of the disease often focuses on keeping it safely in remission.

Because the illness and its treatment can lead to bone density issues, a series of techniques are often used to promote bone health. They include good nutrition to ensure the child is getting enough calcium, exercise to strengthen their bones and medication to slow bone breakdown.

This unpredictability can take a toll on emotional well-being, too, so consider your child’s whole health and work with your child’s medical team to get the full scope of care that your child needs.

Pay Attention to Emotional Health

As with other illness, it can be our response to stress and pain that helps to set the tone for our mental and even our physical health. But whereas adults can think about ways to cope with the stress of arthritis, children too often cant and end up feeling helpless.

As a parent, you can help teach your child ways to feel like they have control over their illness. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Play is medicine: Juvenile arthritis is entirely compatible with an active lifestyle and making play work for your child can help manage their symptoms.
  • Lean on me: Just as adults know having friends can help them get through hard times, children can learn to rely on their friends and family.
  • Tackle it head on: Ignoring an illness or avoiding healthy activity is ultimately likely to lead to negative thinking and a sort of learned helplessness. Encourage your child to see themselves as not passive bystanders to their medical condition.

Some studies have found that children (and adults) who feel they have control over their pain report less of it.

At AdventHealth, we strive to find the connections among physical, emotional and spiritual health. We work with families to match the latest treatments with extra compassion to help children live a full, meaningful and healthy life.

For more information, check out our pediatric orthopedics website.

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