by Steffany Moonaz , Ph.D., Department Chair, Clinical & Academic Research
Due to the symptoms of juvenile arthritis, it can be difficult for some kids to play with their friends, maintain their independence, or keep up socially or academically. Fortunately, there is hope for children with arthritis. And increasingly, doctors and parents are turning to holistic treatments like yoga for help.
In our research, we have found that yoga decreases pain, improves mood, and bolsters quality of life for adults with arthritis. Less quantified, but perhaps more importantly, we have heard many stories describing how yoga can transform one’s relationship to the disease, to the body, to life with arthritis and even to life overall. While some of this transformation may happen in the natural course of living with arthritis, imagine growing up with arthritis–yes, from childhood–and with all of the tools of yoga right from the beginning.
What is juvenile arthritis?
Juvenile arthritis is not one specific disease but rather a group of youth arthritis conditions affecting kids under 16. According to the Arthritis Foundation, common types include juvenile idiopathic arthritis, juvenile lupus, juvenile myositis, and juvenile scleroderma. The majority of these conditions—which can affect multiple body parts including the joints, muscles, skin, digestive tract, and eyes—are autoimmune disorders. This means a child’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs.
It’s not totally clear what causes juvenile arthritis in kids, but doctors believe a combination of genes and the environment play a role.
About 300,000 kids in the United States have some form of juvenile arthritis. Professional organizations including the Arthritis Foundation now recognize the importance of holistic techniques—including meditation, massage, acupuncture, and yoga—for helping kids with arthritis, in addition to more conventional therapies.
Yoga and juvenile arthritis
Yoga is a centuries-old mind/body practice that features a variety of postures, movements, breathing patterns, and mindfulness exercises. It’s known to benefit adult health and is safe and effective for people from all backgrounds. Growing research suggests yoga can benefit kids, too, and may even be an excellent adjunct juvenile rheumatoid arthritis treatment, as well.
History & Research with juvenile arthritis
The first research study I was involved with after undergrad was a sibling-donor cord blood program. When a family had a young child with a transplant-treatable illness and was pregnant with a second child, we facilitated cord blood collection at birth and, if the blood was a match, it was used for a transplant in the older child. I learned a lot during that project about the challenges of multi-site research, the importance of standard operating procedures, and the power of research to save lives. I also learned about the remarkable resiliency of children with chronic diseases.
In the decades since, I have been actively involved in Arthritis Foundation events targeted toward the 300,000 American children with arthritis and their families. July is Juvenile Arthritis Awareness Month. While most people are familiar with osteoarthritis, which increases in prevalence with age, injury, repetitive motion, and body weight, systemic forms of arthritis are more likely to emerge in middle-age or younger. In addition to these events, which focus on arthritis from birth to young adulthood, I’ve also worked with adults who have had arthritis since their youth.
The Arthritis Foundation did not always have mechanisms for bringing young people with arthritis together. A former student recalled that when she was diagnosed as a teen, she would have been grateful just to know that there was someone else out there like her. Today, there are many ways to do so.
How does juvenile arthritis affect the children?
One thing that strikes me about these children is their level of comfort with medical care and the healthcare system. While my 11-year-old daughter still cries in anticipation of an occasional vaccine and has to be held during the procedure, I recall very small children holding out an arm for a routine blood draw or the insertion of an IV needle as though it were nothing. This bravery strikes me as both remarkable and quite sad.
The other observation I’ve made about such children is the wisdom they carry, far beyond their years. Their illness has forced them to accept certain realities and challenges that most children will never consider, let alone endure. A friend in her early 30s, who has had arthritis since age 2, told me that she was more prepared for aging than her peers because early in life she has already dealt with most of the physical and emotional ramifications of aging.
Ultimately, juvenile arthritis affects children much like chronic health conditions affect adults—in a highly individualized way. No two children with arthritis are exactly alike. Therefore, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis treatment should reflect each child’s unique needs and goals.
Of course, this is the beauty of yoga as a restorative practice, which is accessible to all and endlessly customizable.
Other activities for those with juvenile arthritis
Children with arthritis often experience symptoms that make it difficult to move. But while it may seem counterintuitive, exercising is one of the most important things people with arthritis can do to improve symptoms and function.
Research from Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center and elsewhere show yoga and arthritis are a great match. We need more research about yoga for children with arthritis, but at least a few studies including Feinstein et al (2018) and Evans et al (2012) reveal promising benefits, including less pain and stiffness, and possibly improved mood.
Exercise is extremely beneficial for kids with arthritis, so it’s important to find activities they’ll enjoy…even if they don’t love yoga.
Swimming can be a gentle, safe, and enjoyable activity for kids with arthritis. Being in the water eases the strain on joints but can still improve range of motion, strength, and endurance. Plus, swimming is fun for many children and a great option for kids who have trouble walking.
Walking can alleviate stress and reduce anxiety. Since over a third of kids with juvenile arthritis have depression or other mood problems, we simply can’t overlook the potential impact of something as simple as a daily walk.
Improving balance is a known benefit of yoga for arthritis, among other health conditions. But there are other fun ways for kids with juvenile arthritis to improve their balance, from organized sports to playtime in the backyard.
When I attend events for children with arthritis, I don’t just walk them through yoga poses with animal names. I teach them how changing their breathing can change their pain. I show them poses that can help them feel strong during challenges, I talk them through a relaxation practice that can help them with sleep and practices to use when they are feeling fatigued. I teach them about listening to their bodies, making choices that are non-harming, and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
I once asked a middle-aged woman with rheumatoid arthritis why she hadn’t tried yoga sooner, because it had changed her life so profoundly. She responded that no one ever told her she could. Working with children is my way of showing them they can. They can practice self-care along with their medical care, and they can even teach their parents how to use these practices.
Whether you are a yoga professional or an adult with arthritis, consider contacting your local Arthritis Foundation office to find out how you can serve kids with arthritis near you. I promise that you will learn more than you teach.
Frequently Asked Questions about Juvenile Arthritis
Does juvenile arthritis shorten life span?
Juvenile arthritis may shorten life span in some kids. A recent study by Davies et al (2015) found that kids with severe juvenile arthritis tend to die earlier than kids with typical health. But juvenile arthritis can be managed long-term with appropriate treatment, and many kids diagnosed with youth arthritis go on to lead long active lives.
How is juvenile arthritis treated?
Medications tend to play a big role in juvenile rheumatoid arthritis treatment. But other treatments exist, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and holistic or lifestyle modifications like stress management, diet, and exercise (including yoga). Some kids eventually require surgery to replace joints damaged by their arthritis.
Can juvenile arthritis go away?
Juvenile arthritis isn’t curable. Sometimes, symptoms can go away for months, years, or even the rest of a child’s life. This is called remission. Other kids may experience symptoms throughout their lifetime. For these kids, the goal of treatment is to improve quality of life and alleviate symptoms as best as possible.
Looking to add Yoga Therapy into your practice? Check out MUIH’s Masters of Science in Yoga Therapy or the Post-Master’s Certificate in Therapeutic Yoga Practices.