People often think that arthritis, or the disease characterized by the pain, swelling and stiffness of joints, is just for the older population of society. However, that is not the case. Arthritis is not just a disease of the old, and even children as young as 6 months can acquire this illness.
What is it? Dr. Christine B. Bernal, who specializes in Pediatric Rheumatology, defines Juvenile Arthritis or chronic arthritis as the persistent inflammation of the joints for a period of more than 6 weeks in a child who is less than 16 years of age. By chronic, it means that the symptoms of the illness have been felt for a long period of time or have been frequently recurring.
“The exact cause of the illness is unknown,” says Dr. Bernal. However, studies have been shedding new light about the illness. “The current theory is that a patient with Juvenile idiopathic (or unknown) arthritis has a genetic susceptibility that is triggered by some known environmental cause,” she stresses. Putting it simply, one theory purports that a problem in a child’s genetic makeup and outside factors from the environment may be the root cause of the illness.
Other theories suggest that genetics plays a valuable role. Furthermore, theories also state that a child who is genetically predisposed or susceptible to juvenile arthritis may have greater chances of being affected by triggers in the environment because of his weak immunity. There are even some theorists who go as far as saying that behavior and nutrition during conception or pregnancy, as well as pollution and other factors from the environment contribute to a child’s acquisition of the illness. It’s a chicken-and-egg debate on nature vs. nurture when it comes to juvenile arthritis, and no definite cause can be pinpointed yet.
What are the symptoms of this illness? There are three types of Juvenile Arthritis, according to Dr. Bernal. First is the Oligoarticular type, which is the kind of arthritis that affects four or less joints. Polyarticular type is arthritis that affects five or more joints. Lastly, Systemic type is the kind that affects any number of joints, is associated with fever, rash, enlarged lymph nodes, organomegaly (enlargement of internal organs in the body), and a high count of white platelets. “In the US, the oligoarticular type is the most common, but here in Asia, it’s the polyarticular and systemic which are more commonly seen,” she says.
The different types of juvenile arthritis are significantly different from each other. However, these three still share common symptoms. “The most common symptom is joint pains/stiffiness that is usually felt in the morning or with prolonged immobility,” Dr. Bernal stresses. A child may have limited movement due to swelling and pain in the joints.
Dr. Bernal emphasizes, though, that the diagnosis of this illness in a child is purely clinical. This means that to confirm if a child indeed has Juvenile Arthritis, the manifestations of the illness must be closely studied through a battery of physical examinations and laboratory tests.