By Katherine Plumhoff
When you see the letters JA, you may think of Japan, or the grammatical particle meaning “yes” in most Germanic languages, or the nonprofit Junior Achievement. For 294,000 young Americans and their families, though, those letters signify juvenile arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease. July is JA Awareness Month, and we’re here to provide some background information on the disease.
Juvenile arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system attacks the body itself, and it can be idiopathic, which means that there is no known cause. There are several subcategories of the disease, all of which have different symptoms that may include joint stiffness, pain, swelling, or tenderness; limping; decreased appetite and growth; persistent fever; fatigue; rashes; and eye redness or pain.
In juvenile arthritis, the immune system targets the synovium, the tissue that lines joints. Arthritis, which literally means joint inflammation, is known to affect adults, but JA can also involve eyes, skin, and the gastrointestinal track.
Although JA can affect children of all ages, children who are 2 to 3 years old are at the highest risk. Girls are twice as likely as boys to have the disease, and no clear genetic link has been discovered, though some research does suggest a genetic predisposition, which means that a child’s genes may cause the onset of JA when triggered by an outside factor.
JA is chronic but, if diagnosed and treated early, its potentially serious complications such as stunted overall growth and joint complications can be improved or avoided. However, many people aren’t familiar with the symptoms of the disease, leading to misdiagnoses and continued pain.
Diagnosing JA is a difficult process in and of itself. There’s no test to show how likely a child is to develop JA or clear tests to prove a child has it; the diagnostic process is one of exclusion, with a detailed physical exam, understanding of the child’s medical history, and occasionally a combination of other tests and X-rays.
Once diagnosed, JA is usually treated with a combination of medication, physical activity (including physical therapy), eye care, and healthy eating.
About half of children with JA will go into remission while others may continue to need treatment throughout adulthood. Even children undergoing treatment can often manage their pain well enough to participate in athletic activities, attend school, and enjoy their lives without extensive complications.
Perhaps your family has been dealing with JA for a while, or maybe you’re hearing about it for the first time. Regardless of your history with the disease, continue to educate yourself about it this month and all year round. For more resources, check out this JA overview.
And for parents and caregivers of children with juvenile arthritis, Spry’s upcoming book Living with Juvenile Arthritis: A Parent’s Guide by Kimberly Poston Miller is an indispensable resource, full of information and inspiration for families who are dealing with this complex condition.
Katherine Plumhoff joined the Spry Wellness Blog as a contributor in 2013. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in English and Communication Studies at the University of Michigan and hopes to work in publishing after graduation.