About Pediatric Arthritis and Other Rheumatic Diseases

What is the difference between arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis, itself a group of more than 100 different diseases, is one category of rheumatic diseases. Rheumatic diseases may cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints and other supporting body structures, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. However, rheumatic diseases can affect other areas of the body, including internal organs. Some rheumatic diseases involve connective tissues (called connective tissue diseases), while others may be caused by autoimmune disorders, which are diseases involving the body's immune system attacking its own healthy cells and tissues.

What is the immune system?

The purpose of the immune system is to keep infectious microorganisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi, out of the body, and to destroy any infectious microorganisms that do invade the body. The immune system is made up of a complex and vital network of cells and organs that protect the body from infection.

When the immune system doesn't function properly, it leaves the body susceptible to an array of diseases. Allergies and hypersensitivity to certain substances are considered immune system disorders. In addition, the immune system plays a role in the rejection process of transplanted organs or tissue. Other examples of immune disorders include:

  • Cancer of the immune system

  • Autoimmune diseases, such as juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and anemia

  • Immune complex diseases, such as viral hepatitis and malaria

  • Immunodeficiency diseases, such as AIDS

Anatomy of the immune system, child

Who treats pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis and other rheumatic diseases may be treated by your child's pediatrician and/or other medical specialists and health care providers. Several doctors from different medical specialties may be involved in the treatment of your child at the same time. This multidisciplinary team approach is particularly important in managing symptoms of the rheumatic disease, especially as many symptoms are chronic and change in severity over time. Some of the more common medical professionals involved in the treatment of arthritis or other rheumatic diseases may include the following:

  • Pediatrician or primary care  doctor. While your pediatrician or primary care doctor may treat and/or diagnose your child's disease, he or she may refer you on to a specialist for more specialized treatment of certain aspects of the disease.

  • Rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases that may affect joints, muscles, bones, skin, and other tissues. Most rheumatologists have a background in internal medicine or pediatrics and have received additional training in the field of rheumatology. Rheumatologists are specially trained to identify many types of rheumatic diseases in their earliest stages, including arthritis, many types of autoimmune diseases, musculoskeletal pain, disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and osteoporosis. In addition to four years of medical school and three years of specialized training in internal medicine or pediatrics, a rheumatologist has had an additional two or three years of specialized training in the field of rheumatology. A rheumatologist may also be board-certified in rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine or the American Board of Pediatrics.

  • Orthopedic surgeon. The doctor who specializes in orthopedic surgery is called an orthopedic surgeon, or sometimes, simply, an orthopedist. Orthopedists are educated in the workings of the musculoskeletal system, which includes (but is not limited to) diagnosing a condition or disorder, identifying and treating an injury, providing rehabilitation to an affected area or function, or establishing prevention protocol to inhibit further damage to a diseased area or component of the musculoskeletal system.

    The orthopedist may have completed up to 14 years of formal education. After becoming licensed to practice medicine, the orthopedic surgeon may become board-certified by passing both oral and written examinations given by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.

    Many orthopedic surgeons choose to practice general orthopedics, while others specialize in certain areas of the body (for example, foot, hand, shoulder, spine, hip, or knee), or in a specialized area of orthopedic care (for example, sports medicine or trauma medicine). Some orthopedists may specialize in several areas, and may collaborate with other specialists, such as neurosurgeons, rheumatologists, and physiatrists in caring for patients.

  • Physical therapist. Physical therapy is the health profession that focuses on the neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, and cardiopulmonary systems of the human body, as these systems relate to human motion and function.

    Physical therapists, or PTs, are important members of the health care team. They evaluate and provide treatment for persons with health problems resulting from injury, disease, or overuse of muscles or tendons. Some physical therapists specialize in caring for children.

    Physical therapists have an undergraduate degree in physical therapy, and many have a master's degree. In order to practice, all graduates must be licensed by their state by passing a national certification examination.

    Physical therapists may practice in a variety of settings, including:

    • Hospitals

    • Nursing homes

    • Rehabilitation centers

    • Home health agencies

    • Schools

    • Industrial health centers

    • Sports facilities

    • Community health centers

    • Private practice

    Physical therapy treatment and services focus on restoring the individual's mobility and function, cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, and efficiency in the activities of daily living (ADLs).

    As related to arthritis and other rheumatic diseases, physical therapists provide comprehensive training that includes, but is not limited to:

    • Functional mobility

    • Balance and gait retraining

    • Soft-tissue mobilization

    • Body mechanics education

    • Casting and splinting

    • Wheelchair safety and management

    • Neuromuscular re-education

    • Exercise programming

    • Family education and training

    • Assistance with pain relief and management

    • Instruction in safe ambulation (may include the use of a walker, cane, or crutch)

  • Occupational therapist. Occupational therapy is a health care profession that uses "occupation," or purposeful activity, to help people with physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities lead independent, productive, and satisfying lives.

    An occupational therapist often coordinates the following in the care for the individual with a debilitating condition, such as arthritis or other rheumatic disease:

    • Evaluating children with developmental, neuromuscular problems in order to plan treatment activities that will help them grow mentally, socially, and physically

    • Conducting group or individual treatment to help patients in a mental health center learn to cope with daily activities

    • Recommending changes in layout and design of the home, school, or workplace to allow persons with injuries or disabilities greater access and mobility

    Occupational therapists work in a variety of different settings, including:

    • Hospitals

    • Rehabilitation centers

    • Schools

    • Nursing homes

    • Home care agencies

    • Private practice

    • Government agencies

  • Podiatrist. A podiatrist specializes in foot care and is licensed to prescribe medication and perform surgery. For example, people who suffer from arthritis in the feet may see a podiatrist for special supportive shoes.

  • Nurses or nurse practitioners. Nurses or nurse practitioners specialized in the care of rheumatic diseases, may assist your child's doctor in providing care. In addition, these nurses or nurse practitioners may help you learn about your child's treatment plan and can answer many of your questions.

Who is affected by pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis and rheumatic diseases can affect anyone, at any age, or of any race. However, certain diseases are more common in certain populations, including:

  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis usually affects children younger than age 15.

  • In children, lupus occurs more often in females.

  • Ankylosing spondylitis is more common in boys.

What causes pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

The cause of most types of rheumatic diseases remains unknown and, in many cases, varies depending on the type of rheumatic disease present. However, researchers believe that some or all of the following may play a role in the development or aggravation of one or more types of rheumatic diseases:

  • Genetics and family history (such as, inherited cartilage weakness)

  • Trauma

  • Infection

  • Neurogenic disturbances

  • Metabolic disturbances

  • Excessive wear and tear and stress on a joint(s)

  • Environmental triggers

  • The influence of certain hormones on the body

What are the symptoms of pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

The following are the most common symptoms of pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. However, each child may experience symptoms differently, and different types of rheumatic diseases present different symptoms. In general, however, symptoms may include:

  • Joint pain

  • Swelling in one or more joints

  • Joint stiffness that lasts for at least one hour in the early morning

  • Chronic pain or tenderness in the joint(s)

  • Warmth and redness in the joint area

  • Limited movement in the affected joint(s)

  • Fatigue

  • Persistent fevers

Symptoms of pediatric arthritis and other rheumatic diseases may resemble other medical conditions and problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.