Kids who were active in sports before their diagnoses may perceive barriers to their return to sports even as their arthritis comes under control. They may feel they’re not able to perform as well as they once could. They may not want to go through physical therapy recommended by their medical team. Or they may not want to wear splints or other adaptive equipment sometimes necessary to protect joints.

A willingness to adapt or try something new can be key. Fifteen-year-old Sean Bartlett of East Stroudsburg, Pa., was 9 when his arthritis was identified. He’d been super active, playing baseball, basketball and soccer. Once his disease came under control, he continued playing these sports.

“But as he got older the games became more aggressive and Sean was getting hit harder and hurting more,” says his mother, Carol. Sean had always been a swimmer, so he decided to join a great YMCA swim team called the Pocono Piranhas when he was 11.

“Since I’ve started swimming my muscles have gotten stronger, I’m more flexible, and I’m noticing less pain,” says Sean. He continues to swim for the “Y” team and as a freshman in high school, he also made his varsity high school swim team.

Dealing With Flares

Sean’s coaches know he has arthritis and work with him when he’s having a bad day. Dr. Houghton feels it’s crucial to tell coaches and PE teachers of a child’s arthritis to prevent a common misunderstanding. Many people don’t realize that because of arthritis’s variable symptoms, a child can work out just as hard every day but not produce the same results due to the ebb and flow of the disease.

Following a flare, Dr. Houghton recommends that kids limit activity within pain boundaries, add some rest and gradually return to full speed. But if team players have alternate exercises they can do without pain, they can head to practice.

Team sports aren’t for everyone, but for Sean and many other kids, belonging to a sports team offers superb non-physical benefits. “I think being part of a team is a great motivator, it’s wonderful for kids’ self-esteem, they’re with people who have the same interests, and it gives them an instant group of friends,” says Carol Bartlett.

Whether your child plays on a travel soccer team, rides bikes with the neighborhood kids, practices tai chi or swims on your town’s rec team, it’s all good. The main thing is that they’re moving and enjoying themselves, like kids should.