Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a term used to describe a group of disorders in children that includes arthritis. They are long-term (chronic) diseases that cause joint pain and swelling. The names describing this group of conditions has changed over the past several decades as more is learned about the condition.
The cause of JIA is not known. It is thought to be an autoimmune illness. This means the body attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.
JIA most often develops before age 16. Symptoms may start as early as 6 months old.
The International League of Associations for Rheumatology (ILAR) has proposed the following way of grouping this type of childhood arthritis:
- Systemic-onset JIA. Involves joint swelling or pain, fevers, and rash. It is the least common type but it can be the most severe. It appears to be different than the other types of JIA and is similar to Adult Onset Stills Disease.
- Polyarthritis. Involves many joints. This form of JIA may turn into rheumatoid arthritis. It may involve 5 or more large and small joints of the legs and arms, as well as the jaw and neck. Rheumatoid factor may be present.
- Oligoarthritis (persistent and extended). Involves 1 to 4 joints, most often the wrists, or knees. It also affects the eyes.
- Enthesitis-related arthritis. Resembles spondyloarthritis in adults and often involves the sacroiliac joint.
- Psoriatic arthritis. Diagnosed in children who have arthritis and psoriasis or nail disease, or a have close family member with psoriasis.
Symptoms of JIA may include:
- Swollen, red, or warm joint
- Limping or problems using a limb
- Sudden high fever, which may come back
- Rash (on trunk and extremities) that comes and goes with fever
- Stiffness, pain, and limited movement of a joint
- Low back pain that does not go away
- Bodywide symptoms such as pale skin, swollen lymph gland, and a sick appearance
JIA can also cause eye problems called uveitis, iridocyclitis, or iritis. There may be no symptoms. When eye symptoms occur, they can include:
Exams and Tests
The physical exam may show swollen, warm, and tender joints that hurt to move. The child may have a rash. Other signs include:
Blood tests may include:
- Rheumatoid factor
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA)
- Complete blood count (CBC)
Any or all of these blood tests may be normal in children with JIA.
The health care provider may place a small needle into a swollen joint to remove fluid. This can help to find the cause of the arthritis. It can also help relieve pain. The provider may inject steroids into the joint to help reduce swelling.
Other tests that may be done include:
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen may be enough to control symptoms when only a small number of joints are involved.
Corticosteroids may be used for more severe flare-ups to help control symptoms. Because of their toxicity, long-term use of these medicines should be avoided in children.
Children who have arthritis in many joints, or who have fever, rash, and swollen glands may need other medicines. These are called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). They can help reduce swelling in the joints or body. DMARDs include:
- Biologic DMARDs such as anti-TNF agents, IL-1 inhibitors and IL-6 inhibitors.
Children with JIA need to stay active.
Exercise will help keep their muscles and joints strong and mobile.
- Walking, bicycling, and swimming may be good activities.
- Children should learn to warm up before exercising.
- Talk to the doctor or physical therapist about exercises to do when your child is having pain.
Children who have sadness or anger about their arthritis may need extra support.
Some children with JIA may need surgery, including joint replacement.
Children with only a few affected joints may have no symptoms for a long period.
In many children, the disease will become inactive and cause very little joint damage.
The severity of the disease depends on the number of affected joints. It is less likely that symptoms will go away in these cases. These children more often have long-term (chronic) pain, disability, and problems at school. Some children may continue to have arthritis as adults.
Complications may include:
- Wearing away or destruction of joints (can occur in people with more severe JIA)
- Slow rate of growth
- Uneven growth of an arm or leg
- Loss of vision or decreased vision from chronic uveitis (this problem may be severe, even when the arthritis is not very severe)
- Swelling around the heart (pericarditis)
- Long-term (chronic) pain, poor school attendance
- Macrophage activation syndrome, a severe illness that may develop with systemic JIA
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You, or your child, notice symptoms of JIA
- Symptoms get worse or do not improve with treatment
- New symptoms develop
There is no known prevention for JIA.
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA)
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Review Date 5/2/2021
Updated by: Diane M. Horowitz, MD, Rheumatology and Internal Medicine, Northwell Health, Great Neck, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.