How to Ease Kids’ JIA Aches and Pains

by Megan McMorris Health Writer

If your child is dealing with physical soreness and aches that accompany juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), you can feel helpless as a parent. An autoimmune disease, JIA occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the synovium, or lining inside the joints, and the synovial fluid in the joint itself. This causes the synovium to make extra fluid, which builds up and results in swelling and pain. It’s a complex disease, and you can’t treat your child’s joint pain the way you might, say, a bruised elbow or sprained ankle.

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Still, knowledge about the best way to treat JIA is rapidly improving. For starters, experts now know that there are six different types of the disease. “We’ve come a long way toward understanding the disease,” says Amir Orandi, M.D., a pediatric rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Along with advances in medication, experts have zeroed in on physical exercises that work best for soothing JIA pain. Here’s the latest thinking on how you can help your child.

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Stretch It Out

Stretching improves flexibility, and flexibility helps counteract JIA stiffness. In order to properly increase a joint’s flexibility, your child needs to work it from all angles, says Daniel J. Wallace, M.D., associate director of the rheumatology fellowship program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. That means movements involving abduction and adduction (moving an arm or leg away or toward the body), flexion and extension (bending or straightening a joint), and rotation (turning parts of the body).

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Warm Things Up

When it comes to easing joint pain and soothing muscles, heat is your friend, says Dr. Wallace. “Moist heat is more beneficial than dry heat, so a warm bath, hot tub or jacuzzi, can really help,” he adds. Heating pads and products like Ben Gay or Icy Hot can also help to spot-treat any particular pain points. And don’t forget the power of touch: One study found that a 15-minute massage every day for 30 days not only lessened pain for those with juvenile arthritis, but also lowered anxiety and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

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Get the Joints Moving

Mukundu Stiles, a founder of the Yoga Therapy Center in Boulder, CO, developed a specific program for people with mobility issues. The Joint Freeing Series consists of 21 movements designed to work every joint in your body, starting with your feet and moving up to your neck. The moves improve range of motion and increase awareness about body positioning. Try the following sequences at home with your child (all you need is a chair and a mat).

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Help for Aching Feet

Have your child sit on a mat, legs straight out in front and arms on the floor behind his body for support. As he exhales, he should flex his toes toward the ceiling. Taking a deep breath in and out, your child will point and curl his toes toward the floor. On his next inhale, he’ll flex toes toward the ceiling again. Keeping his feet flexed, your child will now rotate his ankles, turning the soles of his feet toward each other. Relax and repeat sequence three times.

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Ease Leg and Hip Pain

Have your child sit on the floor, legs straight in front of her. As she inhales, she should reach both arms out to her right leg, grabbing hold of her shin. Exhaling, she will bend her right knee, gently pulling her heel toward her thigh. After returning to the start position, she should repeat on the opposite side. After three full cycles, your child should spread her legs in front of her in a V-shape. Keeping her back and legs straight, she will rotate at the hips so her feet turn out, then upward, then out again.

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Improve Spine Mobility

Kids with JIA can carry themselves rigidly, as if they are anticipating pain with every step. That can lead to spine stiffness, which makes joint problems even worse. To help your child improve her spine mobility, have her get down on all fours. As she inhales, tell her to arch her back, raising her face skyward. As she exhales, she should round her back, pulling her belly button in toward her spine. Repeat this arch/round sequence 10 times slowly.

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Soothe Aching Arms and Shoulders

Have your child raise his arms straight in front of him, palms up. Next, he should bend his elbows, bringing knuckles to shoulders. As he inhales, he will pull his elbows out to the sides, then raise his hands up, palms facing forward in a “goal post” position. Next, tip the goal post upside down: Keeping elbows bent, have him rotate his arms so his fingers point down and palms face behind. To complete the move, he'll stretch both arms straight out the sides, then lower them.

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Relax Tight Necks

Stiffness from JIA can carry over into the neck, where tension increases the risk of headaches and back pain. To help kids relax this area, have them sit cross-legged, hands by their sides. Ask them to inhale, and as they do, raise their head to look up at the ceiling; exhale and bring their head down to look toward floor. Exhale and tilt their right ear toward their right shoulder; inhale and return to start position; exhale and tilt their left ear toward their left shoulder. Have them finish by shaking their head slowly, side to side.