Arthritis is usually thought of as an illness that affects older people. But in fact, arthritis is one of the more common disorders resulting in chronic disability in children and teens in Canada. The most frequently diagnosed form of childhood arthritis is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). JIA causes severe pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints. It affects more than 3 in every 1,000 children in Canada.
What are the signs and symptoms?
The hallmark of the illness is pain, stiffness, warmth and swelling in the joints. A child might struggle with fatigue and have difficulty sleeping. Day-to-day activities-getting dressed, going to school, playing sports, even just hanging out with friends-can become difficult. A child with JIA may also come to feel isolated and depressed.
The disease affects each person differently, and a child may be symptom-free for months, or even years, at a time before experiencing a flare-up.
How does JIA affect a child’s health?
The continuous inflammation of JIA can affect how a child grows. If only one joint is affected, the inflammation can result in increased blood flow which can cause that part of the body to grow faster than the rest. However, arthritis in many joints can cause a kid to grow slower than their peers.
Other complications include bent joints (contractures), muscle weakness around the inflamed joint, muscle loss and osteoporosis (thin bones). Kids with JIA are also at risk of eye problems, including uveitis (eye inflammation), glaucoma and cataracts.
How is JIA diagnosed?
“Arthritis can develop quickly, but often the signs and symptoms can develop slowly so the child is not aware of the changes in their body until the arthritis has affected many body parts,” says Dr. Nicole Johnson, a pediatric rheumatologist at Alberta Children’s Hospital and clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary. “Getting to the JIA diagnosis can also take a long time, since many parents, and even some doctors, are unaware that children can get arthritis. Children, their parents and their doctors might initially dismiss the signs and symptoms or think the child’s concerns are due to some another cause so the child does not immediately get investigated for arthritis.”
There’s also no single test for the illness, which adds to the time it takes to get diagnosed. Early detection can make a real difference, so if your child is having joint pain, stiffness or swelling for more than a week – especially if accompanied by a fever – talk to your doctor right away. “Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help in the management of the disease and reduce severe damage to the joints,” explains Johnson.
How is JIA treated?
While there’s no cure for JIA, there are a number of ways to relieve the pain and to help control the disease. “Most children with JIA can lead active lives with the help of the right treatment, exercise, rest and joint protection techniques,” says Johnson.
Physical treatments, such as hot and cold therapies, massage and exercise, can help with swelling and pain. These treatments are often combined with safe and effective medications, which, in addition to reducing pain and inflammation, can also decrease or even prevent bone damage.
Where can I get more resources for my child?
It can be hard to explain complex health ideas to kids and unfortunately, there is an enormous lack of useful material for young people around medicine and health. To combat this, The Arthritis Society has launched a comic book about childhood arthritis, giving kids access to medical information they can understand. The comic book is a great resource to help children living with arthritis explain their condition to their new friends and teachers. The book features a gang of larger-than-life superheroes-the Medikidz-each of whom specializes in different body parts. Produced in collaboration with healthcare professionals, families and social workers, the comic book aims to help kids with arthritis become empowered and health-aware.
The Arthritis Society will distribute hard copies of the comic book free of charge to families of children with arthritis through their childhood arthritis-themed events and workshops. To check out a digital flipbook version, and for many more useful resources for parents, go to the Arthritis Society website.