Arthritis Affects Children, Too
Published Online: Monday, July 8, 2013
Of the 50 million people in the United States diagnosed with some form of arthritis, 300,000 are children, whose symptoms are similar to those seen in adults with the condition.
When most people hear the word “arthritis,” they think of the elderly, but the condition can be diagnosed in patients of any age. More than 50 million people in the United States have some form of arthritis—an umbrella term that encompasses more than 100 different conditions affecting the joints, bones, muscles, cartilage, and other tissues—and almost 300,000 of them are children.
In fact, juvenile arthritis is one of the most common childhood diseases in the United States. The term refers to any form of arthritis that develops in children younger than 16. Just like arthritis diagnosed in adults, there are many different classifications of juvenile arthritis. The most common type is juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which is itself divided in 7 different subtypes.
Most forms of juvenile arthritis are autoimmune disorders, in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues, causing inflammation. This inflammation, characterized by redness, swelling, and pain, can in turn cause joint damage. Although some research has suggested that genetic factors are involved in predisposing some patients to develop juvenile arthritis, there are no known causes for these autoimmune responses in children. In addition, no risk factors have been identified for juvenile arthritis, although the disease is generally more common among girls.
Symptoms of juvenile arthritis are similar to those seen in adults, including joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. Most children with the condition also experience periods of remission, when symptoms temporarily subside, and periods when symptoms flare and become worse. Juvenile arthritis can affect growth in some children, depending on the severity of the condition and the specific joints affected. In some cases, certain joints may grow faster or slower than usual, causing one leg or arm to be longer than the other. In other cases, overall growth is slowed.
Some children with juvenile arthritis also experience uveitis, or eye inflammation. Uveitis can occur without symptoms and, if left untreated, can cause cataracts, glaucoma, and, in extreme cases, blindness. Children diagnosed with arthritis are examined regularly by an ophthalmologist to screen for and treat this condition.
Diagnosing juvenile arthritis is often a long and complicated process. Some of its symptoms are also associated with other diseases, and some children do not experience the condition’s most recognizable symptom, joint pain. The diagnostic process may include blood tests, physical exams, X-rays, and other imaging tests to help eliminate other potential diseases or causes for a child’s symptoms. Parents who notice their child limping, especially first thing in the morning, or whose child experiences swelling in 1 or more joints for at least 6 weeks should consult their pediatrician, regardless of whether the child complains of joint pain.
Juvenile arthritis is a serious condition, but medications and other treatments can allow children with the condition to live relatively normal lives. In fact, most children diagnosed with the condition can participate in normal physical activities when their symptoms are under control.