Many people think arthritis only affects the older generation. But 1 in every 1,000 young people in the UK has arthritis.
Arthritis in young people can be complex. Its severity varies from one person to another, and someone's symptoms can alter greatly from day to day. Read more about the symptoms and treatment of juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
A caring and friendly school environment, and staff with positive, understanding and compassionate attitudes, will make a big difference for a young person with arthritis. The key is a genuine ethos of inclusion so that a young person with arthritis has an equal opportunity to participate fully in school life and reach their potential.
When a young person has arthritis
Growing up with a long-term (chronic) illness can pose many physical, emotional and practical obstacles. It’s important to meet early on with your pupil and their parents/carers to find out:
- how the condition affects your pupil
- what they need to make sure they have a positive school experience and what school staff can do to help
- whether they want other pupils to know about their condition.
If a member of your pupil's rheumatology team can attend the meeting they can give you additional medical information and a professional perspective that could be important. The rheumatology team should work with your school to help you understand your pupil's medical condition and needs. Ideally this will include assessment and co-ordination by an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist or a rheumatology nurse specialist.
Your school will need to consider the practical implications of a young person’s arthritis and where necessary help out by making technical and practical alterations.
Difficulties during lessons
Most young people with arthritis can manage perfectly well, with help, in mainstream schools. Your pupil may not need extra help in class on a regular basis, but it’s still useful for you to know about their condition as growing up with a chronic condition can affect psychological well-being.
It's also important to understand that they may need time out of school for hospital and GP appointments, as well as during severe flare-ups of their arthritis.
If your pupil has more severe arthritis they may need long-term support.
Your pupil might not always be able to participate fully in PE and drama lessons. They might want to avoid some contact sports, such as rugby, for example.
It's a good idea to talk with your pupil and their parents about what activities they'd like to participate in and what activities they might need to opt out of.
Exercise is a crucial aspect of a young person's ongoing self-management of their arthritis. They will most likely have a physiotherapist who will discuss and plan a weekly exercise programme with them.
Effects on concentration
If your pupil is in pain, they may be moody, irritable and tired. This can reduce concentration and may be especially bad towards the end of the day.
If you think they're ever using their arthritis as an excuse to get out of doing work, raise it with them sympathetically at an appropriate time. Your pupil may be trying to communicate an unidentified problem with you.
Fatigue can be an overwhelming problem for young people with arthritis. It can be related to:
- chronic pain
- disturbed sleep
- the effects of inflammation.
Getting to and from school/college, as well as around the building, may be difficult. Taking the stairs may cause problems.
Stiff joints, particularly in the morning, may sometimes make your pupil late for school. They may be stiff after a period of sitting and may move less quickly than others.
Carrying heavy bags can be difficult when the arthritis is active.
Effects on their body
Your pupil may find it hard to use their hands properly. They may have difficulty writing, managing tools or doing physical tasks like going to the toilet alone or doing up buttons.
If your pupil has eye complications (uveitis) related to their arthritis, they may have difficulty with their sight.
Many young people have issues around body confidence and this could especially be the case with young people with arthritis.
The disease can affect the shape and size of joints. Many young people with arthritis take steroids, which can lead to weight gain. If this leads to any teasing or bullying, this must be tackled immediately.