The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in 2015 that one in 250 children have some form of joint pain that may be related to either an autoimmune condition or infection.

If the pain is due to an underlying infection, treating the child would usually result in complete resolution of the arthritis.

However, some of these children may have an autoimmune cause for their arthritis. These children would have seen many doctors and the pain doesn’t appear to go away with standard painkillers. At times, the pain can be so severe that they cannot do normal activities in school, or worse, they will skip school completely as they are unable to get up from bed and walk.

When the joint pain lasts more than six weeks, the child may have a condition called childhood arthritis (know medically as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis or JIA), and it affects children and teenagers up to the age of 16.

This is a chronic condition and is due to the immune system attacking the joint capsule or synovium, leading to overt inflammation. This inflammation will lead to pain, swelling and increased warmth on the skin surface.

The pain is usually associated with early morning stiffness, i.e. the child will have difficulty straightening or bending the affected joint in the morning.

These children will move around with bent knees or elbows, and sometimes, they can be seen walking with a limp. The exact cause of this condition is still unknown.

Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness, many of these children only get referred many months later to a paediatric rheumatologist.

JIA is an aggressive condition, and if not managed early, can lead to long-term damage to the structures within and surrounding the joint. As these children are growing, this disease can affect their growth plate, leading to shortening of their limbs.

Worse still is that when the bones are completely damaged, they will not be able to bend their joints.

It is very important to get these children treated as soon as possible to prevent long-term damage to all these vital structures in their body.

There are eight sub-types of JIA, namely oligoarthritis, rheumatoid-factor-positive polyarthritis, rheumatoid-factor-negative polyarthritis, systemic arthritis, juvenile psoriatic arthritis, systemic arthritis, enthesitis-related arthritis and undifferentiated arthritis.

Oligoarthritis occurs when four joints or less are affected and it usually affects children below the age of five. This condition mainly targets larger joints like the knees, ankles and elbows.

Patients with this subtype are prone to suffer eye inflammation called uveitis and will need to have regular follow-up with the eye specialist.

For rheumatoid-factor-positive polyarthritis and rheumatoid-factor-negative polyarthritis, more than four joints are inflamed. The difference is only whether or not there is an autoantibody called rheumatoid factor present.

If this autoantibody is present, the child is likely to have a worse outcome as the disease is more aggressive and will probably need the newer drugs for control.

These two subtypes usually affect children above five years of age.

Girls are more likely to have polyarthritis than boys.

Systemic arthritis usually affects children below five and is a severe form of arthritis, as these children usually present with high grade fever and rash, which cannot be explained or have no source of infection.

This subtype is due to uncontrolled inflammation within the body and can lead to swelling of the heart, lungs, liver and spleen. It can cause a severe drop in the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, leading to a medical emergency called Macrophage Activation Syndrome. This condition can lead to death if not identified early, and as such, should be managed urgently by a paediatric rheumatologist.

Enthesitis-related arthritis is a form of arthritis that affects not only the joints but also the enthesis, which is the part where the ligaments or tendons attach to the bones.

This subtype usually affects school-going children and can lead to severe back pain due to inflammation of the sacroiliac joint. This is a joint that forms between the tail bone and the hip bone.

Children with inflammatory bowel disease, which is an autoimmune disease causing inflammation in the intestines, are at greater risk of developing this subtype.

Examples of swelling in childhood arthritis.

Examples of swelling in childhood arthritis.

Juvenile psoriatic arthritis affects 20% of children who have psoriasis (an autoimmune skin disease where the skin flakes excessively due to rapid skin cell turnover) or have parents or siblings who have psoriasis themselves.

It usually affects the fingers or toes of children above the age of five, leading to sausage-shaped fingers called dactylitis.

Treatment for JIA aims to control the disease as early as possible to prevent further damage to the child’s joints.

It can start with targeted injections into the joints with potent anti-inflammatory medications such as triamcinolone (if there are only a few joints involved), to combination treatment with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for those with more severe forms of the disease.

Most recently, there are more targeted therapies against certain inflammatory molecules in the body, called biologics, which add to the arsenal of treatments against JIA.

With all these medications, the cure rate for JIA is good, especially if treated early, and more than 80% of children with JIA can lead normal, active lifestyles similar to other children.

In a nutshell:

• Children and teenagers can have arthritis too.

• If a child has joint pain for more than six weeks, the child will need to seek medical help from a paediatric rheumatologist as soon as possible as it may be JIA.

• JIA is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can lead to life-long disability if not adequately treated.

• JIA has no exact known cause.

• There are many subtypes of JIA and each subtype has different levels of severity.

• Children with unexplained fever for weeks without a known source may have a severe form of JIA.

• Children with psoriasis can also have arthritis.

• Early treatment is very important to prevent damage to the joint and growth plate.

• Current treatment regimens have a good success rate and most children can lead normal and active lives.

• Parents and the paediatric rheumatologist play an essential role in helping children with JIA cope with this disease, which requires long-term care and treatment.


Dr Cham Weng Tarng is a consultant paediatrician and paediatric rheumatologist. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. This article is supported by an educational grant from Sunway Medical Centre. For further information, visit www.mypositiveparenting.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.