Best Spring Sports for Kids With JIA
Sunny skies and outdoor sports go hand-in-hand, but what if you are a kid with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), an autoimmune disease marked by flares of stiff and swollen joints? Or just the concerned parent of one? If your young athlete has this sometimes painful condition, there’s no reason she or he must stay benched for the season—not even during warm weather months, when heat can sometimes lead to increased inflammation. Learn why sports can benefit your JIA kid (and which ones are best).
Don’t Worry, Be Active
When the days grow longer and warmer, swimming, tennis, and lacrosse programs (to name just a few) heat up across the country (with some new COVID precautions, of course). However, if your budding athlete has JIA, you might worry that they’ll be forced to play through pain—or may try out for a sport they couldn’t possibly excel at because of their condition. Set aside those fears, says Philip Kahn, M.D., a pediatric rheumatologist at NYU Langone in New York City. Kids with JIA don’t have to be sidelined—and sports may help improve JIA symptoms such as stiffness and pain.
Sports Can Benefit JIA Kids in Multiple Ways
“When patients were diagnosed with JIA in the ‘80s, we said they shouldn’t play sports out of fear it would exacerbate the arthritis,” says Kahn. That’s no longer the case—today’s rheumatologists see patients with JIA playing competitive sports at top levels, he adds. Plus, sports provide physical and mental benefits. “It’s important to learn how to use your body, work with a team, problem-solve, follow directions, and listen to authority figures,” he adds. What’s more, treatments have improved so much in recent years, more JIA kids reach remission, and, with minimal symptoms, can participate without worry.
Activity Can Reduce Joint Pain
In fact, a study in the Journal of Rheumatology showed that kids who were less active had more joint pain and limitations related to that pain. The right kinds of regular physical activity can increase flexibility in the joints, strengthen muscles surrounding joints, reduce pain, improve mood, and keep weight in a healthy range, which in turn reduces the amount of pressure on joints, according to The Arthritis Foundation. Research has also shown that kids with JIA can safely participate in water and land-based weight-bearing exercise without an increase in flares.
Playing Conditions Can Affect Joint Pain
On the other hand, outdoor sports are played in all kinds of weather conditions, and there appears to be a connection between weather and arthritis symptoms. “Some patients report flares of arthritis with changes in barometric pressure, humidity, and rain, as well as change of seasons,” says Dr. Kahn. With heat and humidity rising, or a summer rainstorm brewing, kids with JIA may indeed experience some joint pain and swelling. During an active flare, kids shouldn’t push themselves, but when pain-free, doctors say exercise is helpful JIA.
No Sport Is Off Limits
It’s OK for JIA kids to dabble in any sport—but exercise caution. “Do what feels good but not to the point of pain,” advises Rebecca Trachtman, M.D., assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. If anything hurts, tell your JIA kid it's time to sideline it. Contact sports (like lacrosse) bring injury risk—children with cervical spine arthritis, for example, are at risk of spinal cord injuries. And, high-impact activities (like volleyball) put stress on the joints, warns Dr. Trachtman.
Dive Into Swimming
JIA experts agree that plenty of pool time is an excellent choice for kids with JIA. “Swimming is arguably the best exercise one can do,” says Dr. Kahn. It’s both aerobic and anaerobic, which helps build joint-supporting muscle mass. Plus, it removes gravity—about 90% of your body weight is supported by the water. “It’s much kinder and gentler on your joints than other activities,” he adds. Research has shown that aquatic exercise for patients with arthritis can decrease pain, increase muscle strength as well as joint range-of-motion, and boost aerobic capacity.
Drive Right Into Golf
Join the club. Golf gets the go-ahead because it’s a low-impact sport. According to the Arthritis Foundation, playing golf can improve balance, coordination, and strength, and yield better range of motion. And, remember, to help prevent joint injury it’s important to warm up with some range-of-motion exercises such as arm circles; trunk twists (twisting your head and torso from the waist); and slow, three-quarter swings before hitting the links.
Do Doubles for Tennis
Running up and down a hard court, employing quick turns, and taking forceful swings with the racket can put a lot of stress on your joints, especially for a kid with JIA. If your child’s affected joints include the shoulders, hands, elbows, knees or ankles, this sport may be a bit too high-impact to “love,” and repetitive serves and swings only up the odds for even more joint strain. One way to stay in the game? Play doubles. Having a partner means roughly 50% less impact per player.
Swap Volleyball for Rowing
Volleyball is a summertime favorite, but it's high-impact and carries a high risk of injury (as can any game involving diving, jumping, spiking, and blocking). According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 183,000 volleyball-related injuries were treated in a single recent year. A better option: Kids with JIA that affects the lower extremities might enjoy rowing, advises Dr. Trachtman. The focus is on upper body strength to move those oars and your child will share rowing duties with teammates, building cooperation skills.
Leave Lacrosse for Horseback Riding
Lacrosse is a contact sport for boys; for girls, it’s non-contact, yet “stick-checking” (when a player knocks the ball from another player’s stick) is allowed, which means things can get pretty rough on the field. If injury is a concern, tell your kid to drop the LAX gear and hop in the saddle instead. Riding a horse is extremely easy on the joints—the horse takes the brunt of the impact. Instead, your child will strengthen important core muscles, including the abs, back, and thighs, while building coordination, flexibility, and balance (not to mention a bond with an animal friend).
Train With a PT or OT
If you’re still concerned about letting your child with JIA play certain sports, enlist help from a physical or occupational therapist. “They can be great resources for someone with arthritis,” says Dr. Trachtman. “When you have joint pain, you may be compensating in other ways, which can lead to other mechanical problems,” she adds. A PT can help improve muscle tone and range of motion in the joint, both of which can prevent injuries on the field. And an OT can suggest devices and aids to protect joints during practice and games.
- Benefits of Exercise and JIA: Paediatrics Child Health. (2010). “Physical Activity Recommendations For Children With Specific Chronic Health Conditions: Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, hemophilia, asthma and cystic fibrosis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
- Swimming and JIA: Arthritis and Rheumatology. (2003). “Exercise and Fitness in Children with Arthritis: Evidence of Benefits For Exercise and Physical Activity.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12794801/
- Golf and JIA: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) “Golfing With Arthritis.” arthritis.org/
- Volleyball Injuries: OrthoInfo. (n.d.) “Volleyball Injury Prevention.” orthoinfo.aaos.org/