Dr Tendai Zuze Health Matters
We generally consider arthritis as a disease of grown-ups and traditionally children complaining of achy joints have been dismissed as having ‘growing pains’. It is known, however, that children with joint pain, stiffness, swelling and fatigue may have a serious form of arthritis that requires treatment.
Juvenile arthritis (JA), in its various forms, can affect children as young as two years old so when your young child presents with symptoms, it is important not to assume they are just temporary and to get them checked out.
Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent serious damage to the joints which can cause lifelong debilitation.
Below are the common signs of juvenile arthritis and how they differ from other common aches and pains.
Pain: Kids complain of pain in joints or muscles at times, particularly after a long day of strenuous activity. But a child with juvenile arthritis may complain of pain right after she wakes up in the morning or after a nap. Her knees, hands, feet, neck or jaw joints may be painful.
Her pain may lessen as she starts moving for the day. Over-the-counter pain relief drugs like paracetamol or ibuprofen may not help.
Unlike pain caused by an injury or other illnesses, JA-related pain may develop slowly, and in joints on both sides of the body (both knees or both feet), rather than one single joint.
Stiffness: A child with JA may have stiff joints, particularly in the morning. He may hold his arm or leg in the same position, or limp.
A very young child may struggle to perform normal movements or activities he recently learned, like holding a spoon. JA-related stiffness may be worse right after he wakes up and improve as he starts moving.
Swelling: Swelling or redness on the skin around painful joints is a sign of inflammation. A child may complain that a joint feels hot, or it may even feel warm to the touch.
A child’s swelling may persist for several days, or come and go, and may affect her knees, hands and feet. Unlike swelling that happens right after a fall or injury during play, this symptom is a strong sign that she has juvenile arthritis.
Fevers: While children commonly have fevers caused by ordinary infectious diseases like the flu, a child with JA may have frequent fevers accompanied by malaise or fatigue.
These fevers don’t seem to happen along with the symptoms of respiratory or stomach infections. Fevers may come on suddenly, even at the same time of day, and then disappear after a short time.
Rashes: Many forms of juvenile arthritis cause rashes on the skin. Many kids develop rashes which are sometimes from allergic reactions and even viral infections.
But faint, pink rashes that develop over knuckles, across the cheeks and bridge of the nose, or on the trunk, arms and legs, may signal a serious rheumatic disease. These rashes may not be itchy or oozing, and they may persist for days or weeks.
Weight loss: Healthy, active children may be finicky about eating, refusing to eat because they say they’re not hungry or because they don’t like the food offered. Other children may overeat and gain weight. But if a child seems fatigued, lacks an appetite and is losing rather than gaining weight, it’s a sign that her problem could be juvenile arthritis.
Eye problems: Eye infections like conjunctivitis (pinkeye) are relatively common in children, as they easily pass bacterial infections to each other during play or at school.
But persistent eye redness, pain or blurred vision may be a sign of something more serious.
Some forms of juvenile arthritis cause serious eye complications like iritis, or inflammation of the iris and uveitis, inflammation of the eye’s middle layer.
While many early symptoms of juvenile arthritis could be easily mistaken for other childhood diseases or injuries that aren’t serious or long-lasting, it’s important for parents to get a proper examination and diagnosis from their doctors.
Juvenile arthritis includes many different diseases, but one common thread between them is that they can have serious, even life-threatening impacts on a young child.
Diagnosis can determine the cause of the symptoms, rule out injuries or other diseases, and suggest treatments that will ease symptoms and allow your child to return to school and resume playing with friends and enjoying childhood.