You might think that arthritis is something only grandparents get, but it's a condition
that affects people of all ages.
Read on to find out about juvenile idiopathic arthritis (or JIA), a specific kind
of arthritis that can affect people under age 17.
What Is Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis?
Arthritis doesn't affect young people as much as it does adults,
but lots of teens still get it. Arthritis is an
(swelling and irritation) of the synovial (pronounced: suh-no-vee-ul)
membrane, which lines the joints (like the knees or knuckles). When it becomes inflamed,
fluid is produced. The joints can become stiff, swollen, painful, and warm to the
touch. Over time, inflammation in a joint can damage the cartilage and bone.
"Idiopathic" is a medical word that doctors use to describe a disease that
has no known cause. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis is the most common kind of arthritis
among kids and teens. Kids usually find out they have this disease between the ages
of 6 months and 16 years. (You also might hear JIA called "juvenile rheumatoid
arthritis," or JRA.)
What Happens When Someone Has JIA?
People with JIA may have pain and stiffness that can change from day to day or
from morning to afternoon. These symptoms can come and go. When the condition becomes
more active and the symptoms worsen, it's known as a "flare" or a "flare-up."
JIA often causes only minor problems, but in some cases it can cause serious joint
damage or limit growth. Although JIA mostly affects the joints and surrounding tissues,
it can also affect other organs, like the eyes, liver, heart, and lungs.
JIA is a
condition, meaning it can last for months and years.
Sometimes the symptoms just go away with treatment, which is known as remission.
Remission may last for months, years, or a person's lifetime. In fact, many teens
with JIA eventually enter full remission with little or no permanent joint damage.
Types of JIA
There are seven types of JIA:
Systemic JIA affects the whole body. With this type of JIA, someone
may have high fevers that often increase in the evenings and then may suddenly drop
to normal. During the onset of fever, the person may feel very ill, look pale, or
develop a rash. The rash may suddenly disappear and then quickly appear again. The
person's lymph nodes might become enlarged. Eventually many of the body's joints are
affected by swelling, pain, and stiffness.
Oligoarthritis affects four or fewer joints. A person will notice
pain, stiffness, or swelling, often in the knee and ankle joints. Sometimes oligoarthritis
gives someone an inflammation of the iris (the colored area of the eye) that's known
as iridocyclitis, iritis, or uveitis.
Polyarticular arthritis, rheumatoid factor negative is a kind
of JIA that affects more girls than guys. A person will have swelling or pain
in five or more joints. The small joints of the hands are usually affected as well
as the weight-bearing joints like the knees, hips, ankles, feet, and neck. In addition,
a person may have a low-grade fever, as well as bumps or nodules on parts of the body
subjected to pressure from sitting or leaning.
Polyarticular arthritis, rheumatoid factor positive is the type
of JIA that's most like adult arthritis. This is one of the least common types of
JIA, but it carries a higher risk of joint damage.
Psoriatic arthritis is when a person has psoriasis
and arthritis together.
Enthesitis-related arthritis usually affects the lower joints
(like the ankle) and the spine. Kids with this type of arthritis also may have juvenile
ankylosing spondylitis if joints of the low back are inflamed. Arthritis
that goes along with inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn's disease and ulcerative
colitis) also falls into this category of JIA.
Undifferentiated arthritis is what doctors call it when
someone's arthritis doesn't fit into any of the above categories or falls into more
than one of the six categories described above.
What Causes JIA?
Although doctors don't yet know exactly what causes JIA, scientists are researching
it. Experts do know that JIA happens because of problems with a person's immune
When the immune system isn't working properly — as happens with JIA — it has
difficulty telling the difference between the body's own tissues and damaging germs.
This confusion causes the immune system to attack and damage the body's healthy tissues.
That's what causes the kind of inflammation that goes along with of JIA.
JIA isn't contagious. You can't catch it from someone else or
pass it along to another person the way you might a cold or other infection.
What Do Doctors Do?
It's not always easy for doctors to diagnose JIA right away. JIA itself can have
lots of different symptoms, and some infections, like Lyme disease, have similar symptoms
to JIA. So doctors will want to rule out any other possibilities before deciding something
If a doctor suspects a patient has JIA, he or she will ask about the person's symptoms,
find out if others in the family have had arthritis, and do a complete physical examination
to look for joint swelling, eye problems, and rashes. A doctor may do blood tests
and X-rays. In some cases, doctors may use a needle to take a sample of synovial fluid
from a person's joint.
Sometimes, a doctor might need to see a patient for several months to determine
the particular type of JIA the person has.
How Is JIA Treated?
When JIA is diagnosed early and treated appropriately, it can usually be managed
effectively. There's no cure, but there's a lot doctors can do to ease the symptoms
of JIA and prevent or limit damage to joints.
For some people, taking medications like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce
inflammation. Some patients need to take a weekly medication called methotrexate.
Newer medications — such as etanercept, adalimumab, abatacept, and tocilizumab — can
keep the immune system in check and control the disease far better than was possible
a few years ago. For arthritis flare-ups, doctors may also use medicines called corticosteroids
(like prednisone), but they try to limit these to avoid side effects.
Physical therapy exercises that improve flexibility and the use of heat can help
people with JIA control symptoms. It's rare that joints get damaged in a person's
teens, but surgery can repair damaged joints if needed.
Living With JIA
If you have JIA, it may be hard to get out of bed some mornings. Periods of inactivity,
like sleeping for 8 hours, can be followed by stiffness.
It may be tempting to roll back into bed and sleep the day away, but that can make
things worse. Even though you may feel lousy sometimes, gentle movement can help you
feel better. Just as runners, bodybuilders, and other athletes do stretching exercises
to warm up, gentle massaging and stretching can help soothe the muscles and
ligaments around sore joints.
Once a person is up and moving, the discomfort usually lessens.
Exercise can help keep full motion in your joints and strengthen your muscles and
bones. A physical therapist can help you plan an effective exercise program to do
Proper nutrition can improve anyone's overall health. A dietitian
can help you to understand the basics of a healthy diet. For example, when your symptoms
flare up, you might feel sick and unable to eat as much. A dietitian can help you
find foods that have a higher nutritional value to make up for having a poor appetite.
A positive mental outlook is just as important as exercise and a healthy diet.
If you feel depressed or angry sometimes, talk to someone who can support
you. Tell your parents, your doctor, or a friend about how you feel. It also
may help to do simple things that we often take for granted. For example, each day
try to do something that you enjoy and that makes you happy.
Most teens with JIA do the same stuff as other teens — go to regular schools, hang
out with friends, and stay active physically, academically, and socially. Learning
more about JIA and taking
charge of your medical care can help some people feel more in control, too.
Your doctor and other medical professionals are there to support you and can help
you manage the condition so that it has the least possible impact on your life.