When your child is diagnosed with arthritis, it can be a lot to take in. Now begins the journey of long-term care and helping your child to have a good quality of life. Here’s a primer to help you and your child cope with this chronic illness.

What is juvenile idiopathic arthritis?
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is the new, more widely used term for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a disease that causes the immune system to attack the body, initially the synovium tissue that lines the joints. It causes inflammation, swelling, pain, and stiffness.

As the disease progresses your child’s cartilage and bones can become damaged, and inflammation may attack other organs. Another common symptom in children is uveitis, or inflammation of the eye. Without early, aggressive treatment, your child’s growth may also be inhibited.

There are several types of JIA, such as polyarticular arthritis, which affects more than four joints in the first six months, or systemic arthritis, which affects the body as a whole.

What symptoms should I watch for?
The Cleveland Clinic Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Diseases indicate the following as common JIA symptoms: 
• Pain, swelling and tenderness in the joints
• Fatigue or irritability
• Morning stiffness
• Difficulty performing some motor functions
• Limping
• Eye redness, eye pain, and blurred vision
• Fever
• Rash
• Weight loss

How will my child be diagnosed?
According to the Mayo Clinic, your child’s diagnosis begins with a medical history and physical exam. Your doctor will then recommend one or more tests:

Blood tests measure several arthritis indicators. To test for inflammation, doctors will do an erythrocyte sedimentation (SED) rate test that assesses how quickly red blood cells settle at the bottom of a tube. A quick rate can be a sign of inflammation. Doctors may also perform another test to look for anti-nuclear antibodies or rheumatoid factor — these can determine the type of arthritis your child has.

Your child may also need X-rays and MRI scans to rule out other conditions, such as fractures or tumors and track the progress of the diseases. Also, fluid may be removed from your child’s joint to reduce pain and determine what’s causing the arthritis, states the Mayo Clinic.

What treatments are available for my child?
Medications help reduce inflammation, pain, swelling and stiffness. These are commonly prescribed for child with JIA:

non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.
disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate, relieve joint pain and swelling and slows the progress of JIA.
tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blockers, such as etanercept, block an inflammatory immune system protein called tumor necrosis factor and reduce pain, swelling and morning stiffness.
corticosteroids (such as prednisone) for systemic JIA, more severe form of the disease.

Physical therapy, including range-of-motion exercises, helps maintain joint and muscle function, and reduce pain. Exercises such as walking, biking and swimming, help protect your child’s bones and reduce growth problems.

Also, assistive devices protect your child’s joints and help them function properly. Splints and braces are two that doctors frequently recommend for children with JIA.

How can I help my child cope?
When your child has a chronic illness such as arthritis it can be stressful and make you feel insecure about the best way to care for her. These tips will help:

• Learn as much as you can about your child’s illness. A great resource for parents is the Kids Get Arthritis Too bi-monthly newsletter published by the Arthritis Foundation.
• Schedule and maintain regular doctor’s check-ups. Ask questions, follow treatment plans, and tell your doctor about any changes in your child’s symptoms.
• Don’t limit your child. With proper arthritis care and management your child can still participate in many activities. Don’t be negative or discouraging.
• Don’t push. Be sensitive to your child’s symptoms. Some days will be worse than others and she’ll need to adjust — so will you.
• Be organized. Make sure drugs are taken on schedule, and organize your home so it’s easier for your child to be self-sufficient. For instance, store clothing in shelves or drawers where he doesn’t have to bend or reach up high to get them.
• Talk to your child’s school. Teachers, administrators and coaches should know your child has a chronic illness and may need to take medication or skip certain activities.
• Join a support group. Talking to other parents in the same situation can lower your own stress and provide new ways to cope. Look for groups online or in your area.