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Joint Pain or Swelling in Minors: Could be a Sign of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)

By Dr. Mannu Bhatia in Orthopaedics & Joint Replacement

Jan 30 , 2024 | 9 min read

In the world of paediatrics, childhood is often associated with boundless energy, playfulness, and the spirit of growth and development. That said, when a child experiences swollen or painful joints and the problem persists, it could be a cause for concern. These symptoms may not be mere "growing pains", but could be a sign of something far more complex and impactful - Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), a condition that primarily affects children and adolescents. In this article, we delve deeper into the problem of swollen or painful joints in minors, intending to raise awareness about JIA, equip parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals with the knowledge necessary to identify its signs and symptoms and guide them towards early detection and intervention. Let’s start with some basics. 

What is Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis?

Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects children and adolescents. This condition, by its very name, is characterised by its onset during childhood, typically before the age of 16. Unlike the forms of arthritis observed in adults, JIA manifests as persistent inflammation in one or more joints, often accompanied by symptoms such as pain, swelling, and stiffness. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

As the name suggests, Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis is a condition with an "idiopathic" or unknown cause. However, several factors may contribute to its development, which include:

  • Genetic factors: Some children may have a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to the condition. 
  • Immune system dysregulation: JIA is considered an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues, including the joints. 
  • Environmental triggers: While the exact environmental triggers are not fully understood, various environmental factors, such as infections, toxins, or stress, may play a role in triggering or exacerbating JIA in genetically predisposed individuals. 
  • Hormonal factors: Hormonal changes that occur during puberty may influence the onset or activity of JIA. Some JIA subtypes, such as polyarticular JIA, are more common in girls and often develop around the time of puberty.

While the exact causes of JIA remain uncertain, early diagnosis and appropriate medical management are crucial for children affected by the condition. 

Significance of Recognizing Early Signs of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

The significance of recognising and addressing joint pain in minors cannot be overstated. Children and teenagers may often experience discomfort or swelling in their joints, and these symptoms are sometimes dismissed as temporary issues or growing pains. However, it is essential to recognize that these seemingly harmless signs can be early indicators of JIA. Failure to address these symptoms promptly can lead to significant complications, including long-term joint damage, disability, and a diminished quality of life. 

Common Signs and Symptoms of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

The symptoms of JIA can be diverse and often mimic other childhood ailments, which can make early diagnosis challenging. Common symptoms of JIA include:

  • Joint pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness

Note: These may be most noticeable in the morning or after periods of inactivity. 

Affected children might also experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Irritability

In addition, systemic JIA can present with additional symptoms such as high fever and a salmon-pink rash, whereas psoriatic JIA may co-occur with skin issues such as psoriasis

Recognizing these symptoms and their persistence is crucial, as timely intervention can significantly impact the course of the disease and prevent long-term joint damage.

Possible Complications and Long-Term Effects of JIA

If left untreated or inadequately managed, JIA can lead to various potential complications and long-term effects, impacting the child's overall health and quality of life. The complications and long-term effects of JIA may include:

  • Joint damage: One of the most significant long-term effects of JIA is joint damage. Persistent inflammation can lead to cartilage and bone destruction, resulting in joint deformities, reduced range of motion, and disability. This joint damage can be irreversible.
  • Growth impairment: JIA may affect a child's growth, especially if it involves the growth plates (epiphyses) in the affected joints. Slowed growth in the affected limb can lead to limb length discrepancies.
  • Functional impairment: Over time, JIA can lead to functional limitations, making it difficult for the child to perform everyday activities, participate in sports, or engage in social and recreational activities.
  • Eye inflammation: Uveitis, or inflammation of the eye, is a common extra-articular manifestation of JIA. If left untreated, it can lead to serious eye problems, including vision loss.
  • Cardiovascular risks: Chronic inflammation in JIA may increase the risk of cardiovascular issues later in life, such as atherosclerosis.
  • Psychosocial impact: Living with a chronic condition like JIA can have psychological and emotional effects on the child. It may lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and a sense of social isolation.
  • Medication side-effects: Some medications used to treat JIA can have long-term side effects, such as increased susceptibility to infections or effects on bone health.
  • Osteoporosis: Long-term use of corticosteroids (common in the treatment of JIA) can lead to bone thinning (Osteoporosis), which increases the risk of fractures.

Diagnosis of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

Diagnosing JIA is a complex process that may require the collaboration of paediatric rheumatologists, orthopaedic specialists, and other healthcare professionals. Here is an overview of the steps involved in diagnosing JIA:

1. Clinical evaluation

The diagnosis of JIA begins with a comprehensive clinical evaluation conducted by a paediatric rheumatologist. The evaluation includes:

  • Medical history: The doctor takes a detailed medical history to understand the child's symptoms, their duration, and any relevant family history of autoimmune diseases or arthritis.
  • Physical examination: A thorough physical examination is performed to assess joint function, and mobility, and identify signs of inflammation such as joint swelling, redness, warmth, and tenderness. The doctor will also look for other symptoms such as rashes or fever.

2. Diagnostic criteria

The diagnosis of JIA is guided by specific criteria that include:

  • Duration of symptoms: The child should have experienced arthritis (inflammation of one or more joints) for at least 6 weeks. This distinguishes JIA from other conditions that may cause transient joint pain.
  • Exclusion of other conditions: The Orthopaedics doctor must rule out other known causes of childhood arthritis or joint pain, such as infections or malignancies.

3. Laboratory tests

The doctor may also prescribe various laboratory tests to support the diagnosis and rule out other conditions. The tests include:

  • Blood tests: Blood tests are used to identify the reason for signs of inflammation, which may include elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). Additionally, tests may be done to check for specific antibodies or markers associated with JIA subtypes.
  • Imaging studies: X-rays, ultrasound, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to assess joint damage or inflammation. These tests can help determine the extent of joint involvement and monitor disease progression.

Once JIA is confirmed, it's essential to classify the specific subtype of the condition, to determine the treatment and management strategies. In addition, after diagnosis, regular follow-up appointments are necessary to monitor disease activity, assess joint function, and make any necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

Treatment of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

The goal of JIA treatment is to achieve disease remission, reduce pain and inflammation, prevent joint damage, and improve the overall quality of life for affected children. Treatment strategies can vary depending on the JIA subtype, disease severity, and individual patient needs. That said, the main components of JIA treatment include:


  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen are often used to manage pain and inflammation in milder cases of JIA.
  • Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs): DMARDs like methotrexate are commonly prescribed to slow the progression of JIA and reduce joint damage.
  • Biologic Drugs: Biologics, such as etanercept, adalimumab, or tocilizumab, are used for more severe or refractory cases of JIA. These drugs target specific immune system proteins involved in the inflammatory response.
  • Corticosteroids: Intra-articular corticosteroid injections may be used for localised joint inflammation, while systemic corticosteroids are reserved for severe systemic JIA flares and are usually administered for short periods due to potential side effects.

Physical and occupational therapy

Physical and occupational therapy for JIA is typically tailored to the individual needs of each child, considering their age, JIA subtype, symptom severity, and treatment goals. These therapies play a vital role in maintaining joint function, reducing pain, and enhancing the overall quality of life for children with JIA. These may include:

Physical therapy

  • Range of Motion (ROM) exercises: Pediatric physical therapists work with children to maintain and improve joint flexibility through specific exercises designed to maintain the full range of motion.
  • Strength training: Strengthening exercises help children build muscle around affected joints, which can help improve joint stability and function.
  • Balance and coordination exercises: Exercises that enhance balance and coordination are important, as they can help reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
  • Pain management techniques: Physical therapists can teach children pain-relief techniques such as heat and cold therapy, as well as modalities like ultrasound to alleviate discomfort.
  • Assistive devices: When needed, physical therapists can recommend and help fit assistive devices such as splints, braces, or orthotics to support and protect affected joints.

Occupational therapy

  • Activities of Daily Living (ADLs): Occupational therapists help children develop strategies to perform daily tasks more easily, such as dressing, grooming, and feeding.
  • Joint protection techniques: Children learn techniques to protect their joints during activities to minimise the risk of further damage.
  • Ergonomics: Occupational therapists can offer advice on modifying work or school environments to reduce joint strain.
  • Assistive devices: Like physical therapists, occupational therapists may also recommend assistive devices, such as adaptive utensils or writing aids, to make daily activities more manageable. 


In rare cases of JIA, wherein other conservative treatments fail at managing the condition or when severe joint damage or deformities have occurred, the doctor may prescribe surgery. Here are some surgical procedures to treat JIA:

  • Synovectomy: In cases of persistent joint inflammation and synovitis (inflammation of the synovial membrane lining the joints), a synovectomy may be performed. This surgical procedure involves the removal of the inflamed synovial tissue to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Corrective surgery: Deformities resulting from JIA, such as joint contractures or limb length discrepancies, may require corrective surgery. These procedures aim to improve joint alignment and function.
  • Fusion surgery: In some cases, when joint damage is extensive and irreparable, fusion surgery may be considered. This procedure involves fusing two or more bones to stabilise the joint and reduce pain. It is commonly used in the spine and may also be performed in other joints.
  • Tendon lengthening or release: In cases where JIA leads to tight or contracted tendons, surgical lengthening or release procedures can be performed to improve joint mobility and function.
  • Nerve decompression: In some instances, JIA-related joint inflammation may cause nerve compression, resulting in pain and numbness. Nerve decompression surgery can alleviate these symptoms.
  • Joint replacement: Severe joint damage and destruction can necessitate joint replacement surgery, such as hip or knee replacements. These procedures are typically considered in older adolescents or young adults with advanced JIA.

When it comes to the health and well-being of children, early intervention is paramount, especially when facing a condition as complex as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. If you observe any of the symptoms associated with JIA in your child, such as persistent joint pain, swelling, or stiffness, it is strongly recommended to consult a specialist at a Max Hospital near you. Our team of experienced paediatric rheumatologists is well-equipped to provide the highest standard of care, offering the expertise needed to diagnose and manage JIA effectively. Take the first crucial step toward improving your child's quality of life and ensuring a brighter, pain-free future. Book an appointment, today.