1. Juvenile arthritis (JA) is an umbrella term for several different types of autoimmune and inflammatory arthritis that can affect children under the age of 16. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system malfunctions and attacks various systems in the body. Some of the forms of JA include juvenile dermatomyositis, juvenile lupus, juvenile scleroderma, Kawasaki disease and Mixed Connective Tissue Disorder.
2. JA affects girls more than boys. It is more likely to develop during the ages of 2-4 or in the preteen and teen years. 300,000 children in the US have JA. The cause is unknown, although some genetic factors do play a role.
3. The most common form of JA is Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). This is the name for several different kinds of arthritis previously known as Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. It includes a number of symptoms, such as tightening of muscle and soft tissue, systemic symptoms such as fevers and rash, erosion of bone and misalignment of joints. It can also affect growth.
4. For very young children, the first sign of JA may be losing a developmental milestone, such as walking. Other symptoms include swelling and pain in the joints and unexplained fevers. Making the diagnosis of JA involves medical history, physical exam, blood tests and imaging tests.
5. JA is not just a pint-sized version of adult rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Only 10 percent of cases are similar to adult RA. Children who have positive Rheumatoid Factor have a form of the disease more similar to adult RA. They are also more likely to have severe JA and more bone erosion.
6. JA can have serious complications, including inflammation of the eye that, if left untreated, can cause blindness. It is important that children with JA are regularly checked by a pediatric ophthalmologist, working with the child’s rheumatologist. This can prevent damage from occurring.
7. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to prevent growth abnormalities and allow children to reach their full potential. Early treatment leads to better outcomes. Children with JA are treated with the same drugs as are used for adult inflammatory arthritis. Methotrexate is the gold standard and Biologics are also effective. These medications keep children from deteriorating to the point of needing wheelchairs as often happened in the past.
8. There is a serious lack of pediatric rheumatologists in the US. Eleven states do not have even one board-certified pediatric rheumatologist and seven states only have one. This has very serious consequences for thousands of children with JA.
9. Children with JA are also treated with physical therapy and occupational therapy. It is essential to keep muscles strong and joints moving to prevent disability. Splinting can also be an effective tool to help children function better.
10. Growing up with JA can be difficult. In addition to the physical challenges, children with JA may also be bullied and have difficulty in school and may therefore need more support. In order to help kids with JA reach their full potential, it is important to treat them like any other child and for them to have responsibilities within the family.
Visit our juvenile arthritis area to learn more.
Lene is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain.