Health, Mind & Body

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Arthritis affects children, too

Aches and pains are a widely accepted side effect of aging. Over time, bones can become more brittle and cushioning tissues between joints can deteriorate. But while arthritis and pain are often associated with the elderly, young people, including children, can experience arthritis as well.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, juvenile arthritis, or JA, comes in many forms and affects nearly 300,000 children. JA is an umbrella term used to classify a variety of diseases affecting the joints and musculoskeletal systems in children. Juvenile lupus, juvenile idiopathic arthritis (also known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis), juvenile dermatomyositis, and Kawasaki disease are just a few of the conditions that fall under the JA umbrella.

Unlike adults, who may develop arthritis from years of wear and tear on the body, kids with JA can often trace their condition to genetics. JA also is an autoimmune disease in which the body's natural immune system ends up attacking its own cells by mistake when something goes awry. With arthritis, that attack can result in pain, inflammation and fever.

Juvenile arthritis can cause persistent joint pain, swelling and stiffness. The Mayo Clinic says that some children with arthritis also develop serious complications, such as growth problems or eye inflammation, and JA may affect the skin and gastrointestinal tract.

Arthritis is typically a lifelong condition. Although flare-ups may last a few days or weeks, those with arthritis can usually expect their symptoms to persist throughout their lives. This can be especially challenging for children who are not mature enough to understand their condition. Furthermore, JA can be easily overlooked by doctors who are not used to seeing young patients with arthritis. Parents who learn to recognize the symptoms of JA may be able to identify the condition before their children's doctors, and that early detection can help kids better cope with the discomfort and pain caused by their condition.

• Stiffness: Children with JA may be particularly stiff in the morning.

• Pain: Kids who complain of pain right after waking up rather than after a day of physical activity may be exhibiting signs of JA. Pain may dissipate as children begin moving.

• Swelling: Redness and swelling around the joints is an indication of inflammation. This swelling may come and go or persist for several days.

• Fever: Sudden fevers not linked to any respiratory or stomach ailments may be indicators of JA.

• Fatigue: JA can cause children to be more tired than usual. Fatigue also can affect eating and sleeping patterns.

If a pediatrician suspects JA, he or she likely will recommend a visit to a pediatric rheumatologist, who will then take a complete health history to determine the type of symptoms present and the length of time those symptoms have been present. Laboratory work, x-rays and other imaging tests will rule out other conditions, but no test can definitively say if a child is or is not suffering from JA.

There is no cure for arthritis. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and inflammation and improve quality of life. A combination of medications, physical therapy and healthy eating are usually prescribed to ease symptoms. Medications may be anti-inflammatory drugs as well as biologics, which put the disease into remission and prevent the body's immune system from attacking the body further. Several different treatment plans may be tried until the right combination is found.

Weight management and healthy eating can help a child with JA prevent further joint damage as he or she ages. Physical activity, including low-impact exercises that take the stress off of knees or hips, also are good for the joints and can improve strength and flexibility.

Arthritis is a condition that affects both adults and children. More information is available at www.arthritis.org.