Picture a person with arthritis. Do you see someone elderly with gray hair, glasses and knitting in tow?
Think again: Arthritis is not just a grandmother’s disease. In fact, one in 10 of every 10,000 children will be diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis every year in the United States, and an estimated 70,000 children have the condition nationwide.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what arthritis is,” says Dr. Andrew Shulman, a CHOC rheumatologist.
And the misconception that arthritis is a disease of the elderly isn’t the only myth surrounding this condition.
Just in time for National Arthritis Awareness Month, Dr. Shulman helps debunk other misconceptions associated with arthritis.
Joint pain doesn’t always mean arthritis
The principal symptoms of arthritis are swelling, stiffness and limited range of motion. Pain is only sometimes a part of the symptoms felt by a person with arthritis, Dr. Shulman says.
“We have classic literature from our field that show that if a patient is referred to a rheumatologist with joint pain, they were more likely to be diagnosed with something other than arthritis,” he says.
Dr. Shulman says the term arthritis has incorrectly become a catchall phrase for joint pain.
“I think it’s one of these situations where the term has become common parlance for joint pain or joint issues,” he says. “There’s some overlap between the colloquial use of the term and what it actually is.”
Arthritis is not a precise diagnosis
Dr. Shulman says that arthritis is not a diagnosis, and instead a symptom. A good comparison, he says, is a cough.
“A lot of things can cause a cough – lots of different things involving different organ systems,” Dr. Shulman says. “Arthritis is a finding and symptoms related to joint inflammation, but it can have many causes and is not a precise diagnosis.”
Many things such as an infection, medication exposure, or allergic reaction can trigger arthritis, Dr. Shulman says. In those cases, the arthritis can surface and then go away.
However, in some cases, the symptoms are persistent and chronic.
To confirm if a child has a form of juvenile arthritis, symptoms must have begun before the patient turned 16 and the arthritis must have been present in a particular joint for at least six weeks. Also, physicians must exclude other possible conditions before confirming a diagnosis of juvenile arthritis , Dr. Shulman says.
Arthritis is not diagnosed with lab tests
Arthritis is diagnosed primarily through patient history and examination findings, Dr. Shulman says. Once arthritis is confirmed, laboratory tests can help to characterize the arthritis.
Dr. Shulman says patients complaining of joint pain are often found to have abnormal test results, leading a physician to believe the patient has arthritis. But once the patient sees a rheumatologist, arthritis can be ruled out.
“Another way of saying it is that these tests can yield a false positive,” Dr. Shulman explains.
Arthritis is not a rare condition
Though arthritis is unusual in children, the condition is not rare, Dr. Shulman says.
Arthritis is more common in children than type I diabetes, he says.
Further, according to the Arthritis Foundation, more children have arthritis than juvenile diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy combined.
Learn more about rheumatology at CHOC.
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