Arthritis is a disease most of us associate with older people, but adults aren't the only ones who suffer from this condition. Right now, an estimated 300,000 children in the United States have some form of arthritis.
"Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints," said Dr. Stephen George, a pediatric rheumatologist at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital. "There are several different types of juvenile arthritis and their symptoms vary. The most common form is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or JRA, which causes joint swelling, stiffness and pain."
Symptoms can develop rather suddenly. One day, when Clare Bailey was 5 years old, she complained that her fingers hurt. She was an active child, so her family thought she could have jammed them while playing. Her problems persisted and began to involve other joints.
Several months later, Bailey was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. In addition to their fingers and hands, children with JRA can experience stiffness, limitation and pain in their arms, necks, legs, and feet.
It is unclear what causes juvenile arthritis, but researchers suspect a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, meaning the body mistakenly attacks itself to varying degrees. In addition to attacking the joints, JRA can also involve the skin, eyes and internal organs. JRA occurs twice as often in girls than boys.
No single test can be used to definitively identify a child with JRA. George said he takes a patient history, physical exam, laboratory studies and sometimes will take X-rays and test the joint fluids to make a positive diagnosis.
Without appropriate treatment, JRA can result in serious deformities, blindness, and even death. With treatment however, children do very well. Many children may eventually outgrow JRA.
There are very effective treatment options for JRA, including drugs and physical therapy. Oral medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as ibuprofen and slower-acting medications, such as methotrexate, which Bailey takes. New biologic therapies have also been shown to be very helpful in severe cases.
Almost two years after her diagnosis, Bailey said she feels healthy, and George said she is a prime example of how children with arthritis can lead normal, active lives when the condition is properly identified and treated.
To reach Dr. George or any of the other physicians at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital, call 1-800-492-5538.