Juvenile arthritis (JA) is the general name given to describe many different conditions that cause joint swelling in children under age 16. It is also called juvenile idiopathic arthritis, because its cause is unknown. An estimated 300,000 Americans live with JA.

The hallmarks of JA are joint swelling, pain and stiffness in the knees, hands or feet, though some types involve other areas of the body.

The inflammation or swelling is the result of an autoimmune response that normally attack foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. But in this case, it targets normal, healthy cells lining the insides of joints. The autoimmune response sometimes also targets cells in the eyes, skin, muscles, and gastrointestinal tract.

Hereditary or environmental?

In rare instances, a child with JA may have a parent with a similar condition, but in the vast majority of cases, there is no clear genetic cause. Scientists do not believe environmental factors alone cause JA. The working theory is that a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause JA.  It is possible that parents pass on the genetic tendency to develop JA, but the disease only develops if an environmental factor triggers the inflammatory response.

How do doctors recognize JA?

Children with JA may not complain about joint pain or have obvious swelling in the joints, but they may display other signs such as stiffness, especially when waking up in the morning or after naps. They might also display low activity levels or difficulty with fine motor tasks such as hand dexterity. Fevers and rashes can also be a manifestation of JA. Doctors may suspect JA in children when such signs and symptoms begin before age 16 and last longer than six weeks.

JA cannot be diagnosed with a single blood test, so a thorough physical examination and medical history are needed both to look for signs of JA and other potential causes of symptoms. At this point, blood tests and imaging scans can help establish a diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

What are the potential complications of JA?

Long-term swelling can eventually cause joint damage, hurting overall growth.  Inflammation in the eyes has the potential to cause vision loss. Some types of JA cause a skin condition called psoriasis, and others involve joints of the spine, leading to back pain.

How is JA managed?

Currently, no cure for JA exists, so the goal is to control symptoms, prevent complications and help the child function and live as normally as possible. Usually, a team of healthcare providers is involved, which may include physical therapists, ophthalmologists and counselors in addition to a pediatric rheumatologist — a doctor who specializes in the care of children with inflammatory disorders.

Some children may only have signs and symptoms of JA for a few months, while others will live with the pain and inflammation all their lives.  Even when the condition is lifelong, JA often flares up and subsides. In almost all case,s children can expect to live normal, fulfilling lives.

Note: Juvenile Arthritis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.