Arthritis is a painful condition that affects the joints and bones, and can make it difficult for you to move around. You might think it just affects older people, but young people can experience it too. The tissue lining the joints, like elbows and knuckles, becomes inflamed, making them stiff and swollen.

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is the most common kind that affects young people and is treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). It’s similar to, but not the same as, rheumatoid arthritis that affects some adults. 

JIA occurs when the immune system, instead of just attacking infections, attacks the tissues of the body as well. This makes the lining between the joints stiff and swollen. It can affect any number of joints. The more joints that are affected, the more severe the condition. 

There are three main types of JIA:

  • Oligo-articular JIA affects four or fewer joints and is the most common form. The knees, ankles and wrists are most likely to be affected. This type of arthritis often has a good chance of going away by the time you become an adult.
  • Polyarticular JIA affects five or more joints and is usually more common in girls than in boys.
  • Systemic JIA affects the whole body. It starts with a fever and rash that can appear and disappear with the fever. Joint pain and swelling usually develops later. 


It’s not really known what causes arthritis. Doctors think you might have an increased chance of developing arthritis if you inherit certain genes from your parents but there are probably lots of other triggers, such as viruses, that are also involved. 


The main symptoms of arthritis are:

  • pain
  • swelling 
  • stiffness in the joints 

People with arthritis can sometimes experience ‘flares’ – periods of time when the symptoms are worse. JIA can affect your organs, such as the eyes, liver, heart and lungs as well as your joints. This is because it is caused by an auto-immune response and not general wear and tear. 

Another distinctive symptom of JIA is a high fever that suddenly appears and disappears with a rash.


To diagnose arthritis, your doctor will ask about:

  • The symptoms you’re experiencing.
  • Your family medical history and whether anyone else in your family suffers from arthritis. 

You may have an x-ray to show around your joints and whether the underlying bones are affected. If you’re suffering from JIA, you may also need blood tests to help manage the condition.


Arthritis affects everyone differently. Treatment depends on the type of arthritis and how badly it’s affecting you. It can’t be cured, but treatment will help to relieve pain, control inflammation (swelling) and improve your movement. 

There’s a good chance that you’ll be prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine. Physiotherapy and regular exercise will strengthen the muscles around your joints to help them work better. This can also help to relieve any pain and stiffness in your joints. 

Looking ahead 

Lots of young people with arthritis eventually have full remission. This is when the condition goes away completely. 

It’s important that you start treatment as soon as possible. This means you can work on making the muscles around the joints stronger to help prevent loss of movement.

Last review date: 
June 2014