How early in life can arthritis occur?

Around 15,000 children and adolescents have arthritis in the UK (NHS Choices 2015). Young people will normally be diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (or JIA).

Juvenile means that the arthritis began before the person was 16 years old.
Idiopathic means that the cause of the condition is unknown.
Arthritis means that one or more of the joints are inflamed (swollen, painful, stiff and difficult to move normally).

There are several different types of JIA. The most common is Oligoarthritis JIA which affects less than 5 joints, usually one or both knees and is the type of arthritis most likely to go away over time. The rarest form is systemic-onset JIA which can cause rashes, fever, tiredness, loss of appetite and weight loss and can affect internal organs such as the spleen or liver, which can become enlarged, and very occasionally the covering of the heart can become inflamed (pericarditis) (Arthritis Research UK 2015).

Other people we talked to had a problem in several joints. Sometimes the same type of joint would be affected. Charlotte X had aches and pains in both of her ankles. Kerrie thought that she had broken her fingers because her pain and the swelling was so severe. Leigh had pain in his knees and ankles. Jenna had pain in her feet and fingers.

Often people noticed a problem during sport or other activities such as walking to school or writing in an exam. Some said the problems started after an accident such as falling down the stairs. Several people said that they woke up in the morning with the symptoms. This confused them because they were not in pain before they went to bed and had no swelling or stiffness. Sometimes pain and stiffness caused by inflammation improved after exercise and got worse after rest.

None of the young people we talked to suspected that they had arthritis at first. A few people saw a doctor early on because they were worried about pain or swelling. Often people dismissed the early symptoms and put them down to something else such as a sporting injury or repetitive strain (such as texting too much). The symptoms would then progress to other parts of the body. Some people talked about the pain getting worse and new joints being affected. Others talked about pain and swelling vanishing from one joint and appearing in a new joint. Stiffness in the joints first thing in the morning could be a problem for some.