What is Juvenile Arthritis?
Although you might think of senior citizens when you hear the word “arthritis,” almost 300,000 kids in the United States have a similar condition. When arthritis strikes people younger than 16, it’s called juvenile arthritis.
Juvenile arthritis (JA) is a disease caused by problems with your body’s immune system. When your immune system is working properly, it attacks germs, viruses and bacteria to keep you from getting sick. When you have an autoimmune disease—like juvenile arthritis—the body attacks its own tissue, too. The result is inflammation in your joints, causing them to feel tender, swollen and stiff. That’s why it can be difficult to do everyday activities, like walking or holding a toothbrush to brush your teeth. Even getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenge when you have inflammation in your joints.
A quick vocabulary lesson: You may hear doctors describe your arthritis as a “rheumatic” (room-AT-ik) disease. Rheumatic diseases include any condition that causes pain and stiffness in joints and muscles.
“Idiopathic” (id-ee-oh-PATH-ik) is another new word you may hear, which means there is no known cause. That can make juvenile arthritis difficult to prevent. On the positive side, however, it means you don’t have to worry that you’re at fault. Bad habits, like eating too much junk food or failing to stick to an exercise program, don’t cause juvenile arthritis. Since it’s not contagious, you can rest assured you didn’t catch it from your grandparents and your friends can’t catch it from you.
Juvenile arthritis isn’t just one disorder. It’s actually a term for several different disorders that cause inflammation. Finding out which kind of juvenile arthritis you have is the first step toward getting the right treatment, which can ease pain and prevent long-term joint damage that could cause problems in the future. The different types will be explained in the next section.
JA can be difficult to deal with, but having this disorder shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying most activities. Many people with juvenile arthritis dance, play on varsity teams and take up musical instruments, for example. If pain prevents you from doing something you’d like to do, treatment might make it possible to try. Or, you might be able to modify the activity so you can still do it – just a little differently than you might have originally planned.
It’s important to remember that JA doesn’t speed up the aging process and only very rarely affects a person’s lifespan. People who have it can look forward to the future just like anybody else. They can go to college, become parents and find fulfilling careers. With a positive, flexible attitude, it’s possible to overcome the challenges of living with juvenile arthritis.