Each year, July is designated as Juvenile Arthritis Awareness Month. Close to 300,000 children in America suffer from juvenile arthritis (JA), which is a blanket term to describe the many autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that can develop in children under the age of 16. The most common type of JA is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and a diagnosis of JIA indicates a child has experienced swelling in one or more joints for at least six weeks. Over time, a child with JIA may exhibit a variety of symptoms including muscle and soft tissue tightening, bone erosion, joint misalignment and changes in growth patterns.
Once a child is diagnosed with JIA, the next challenge is to determine the specific type of JIA they are experiencing. The first six months after onset are important as a child’s doctor – likely a pediatric rheumatologist – will monitor the number of joints affected during those first six months, as well as administer the rheumatoid factor blood test, which checks for a substance in the blood that is usually found in people with this condition.
Based on their symptoms, a child may be diagnosed with one of the following categories of JIA:
- Oligoarthritis: This type of JA is diagnosed when four or fewer joints are involved within the first six months. Approximately 40 percent of new JIA patients receive this diagnosis.
- Polyarthritis: A child is diagnosed with this type of JA when five or more joints are involved during the first six months.
- Systemic: This form of JIA has the potential to involve the entire body with symptoms that include arthritis, fever and a salmon pink rash while also affecting internal organs.
- Enthesitis-related: This type is characterized by the inflammation of the enthuses – sites where tendons attach to the bone.
A diagnosis of JIA can be difficult because joint pain in children can be from many other causes. There is no single test that can confirm the diagnosis and most physicians use a combination of blood tests, X-rays and symptoms present to make an initial diagnosis of JIA. If you suspect your child may be suffering from chronic joint pain, speak to your pediatrician to receive a referral to a pediatric rheumatologist.