Children's Health

Arthritis Isn’t Just for Senior Citizens

Arthritis isn’t a diagnosis most parents expect their children to face. Unfortunately, for Linda and Rocky Dennison of Kalamazoo, it is a reality. Their three-year-old son Jaycob has juvenile arthritis. Jaycob is one of approximately 7,000 children in Michigan, and an estimated 300,000 children in America, with some form of arthritis. Juvenile arthritis is the most common form and is frequently characterized by swelling, heat and pain.

The first signs of arthritis can be obvious and dramatic. However, the onset of arthritis can also be very subtle and affected children often have minimal complaints. Early clues include loss of motion or pain with movement in joints such as the wrist, finger or knee. Children with arthritis also may have a fever, rash or swelling.

“We started to think things weren’t right just after Jaycob turned two,” said Linda Dennison. “His ankles were swollen, and he couldn’t walk or run. I literally carried him on my hips for three months. We attributed the symptoms to an ear infection.”

According to James Birmingham, M.D., rheumatologist, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, it is important to obtain an early and accurate diagnosis from a physician if parents suspect their child has arthritis. Understanding the symptoms and characteristics of juvenile arthritis enables parents to help their children maintain an active, normal life.

“We don’t know exactly what causes arthritis in children,” said Birmingham. “Research indicates arthritis is an autoimmune disease: This is a condition where the body loses the ability to differentiate between healthy cells and invaders such as bacteria and viruses. The immune system is designed to protect the body, but in some cases inflammatory chemicals and white blood cells can damage healthy tissues, leading to inflammation and pain.”

Onset of juvenile arthritis typically occurs between the ages of six months and 16 years, peaking between ages two and four. ‘A detailed medical history and a thorough physical examination are required for diagnosis. Pediatric rheumatologists often order X-rays or blood tests to help exclude conditions that can produce juvenile arthritis-like symptoms, as well determine the diagnosis of juvenile arthritis.

“Diagnosing arthritis is tricky,” added Birmingham. “A single test doesn’t always work. The diagnosis is made by a combination of a supportive history, an examination confirming arthritis for at least six weeks and ruling out conditions that mimic arthritis.”

Treatment is designed to relieve pain and inflammation, slow down or prevent the destruction of joints, and restore normal use and function. Jaycob, like many children with juvenile arthritis, is being treated with medications, physical therapy and exercise. He also has received corticosteroid injections. Jaycob’s treatment is going well.

“We have a very happy little boy now,” added Dennison. “I saw his ankle bones for the first time in a year the day after his first injection. His knees aren’t swollen, and he’s like any other child now.”

Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is West Michigan’s largest children’s hospital, serving children and families throughout a 37-county region. A teaching hospital, it includes more than 150 pediatric specialty physicians uniquely skilled in providing medical and surgical care to children in more than 40 pediatric specialties. The hospital cares for more than 7,500 inpatients and 150,000 outpatients annually. Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is committed to caring for children and families with compassion, excellence and innovation.