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14 Articles in Volume 18, Issue #9
Assessing Arthralgia in Children
Children, Opioids, and Pain: The Stats & Clinical Guidelines
How to Fit into a New Practice
How to Talk to Your Chronic Pain Patients
How to Treat Opioid Use Disorder in Pregnant Women
Intranasal Ketamine for Acute Pain in Children
Medication Selection for Comorbid Pain Management (Part 3)
MR Neurography: Using Peripheral Nerve Imaging as a Pain Diagnostic
Naloxone in Schools; Buprenorphine Conversions; OUD Management
Opioid Conversion Calculations and Changes
Pes Anserine Tendino-Bursitis as Primary Cause of Knee Pain in Overweight Women
Self-Management of Chronic Pain in Primary Care
The Homebound Adolescent: Managing Chronic Pain Conditions in the Pediatric Population
The Opioid Band-Aid: The State of Pain Pills, Congressional Bills, and Healthcare in the US

Assessing Arthralgia in Children

Persistent joint pain, with or without other symptoms, in pediatric patients may require long-term monitoring for proper diagnosis.
Pages 25-26

This article originally appeared as a 2018 ACR/ARHP Meeting HIghlight. See the full version and more.

In a session about pediatric arthralgia at the Chicago-based 2018 ACR/ARHP annual meeting, Michael Miller, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, used a few case examples to illustrate how clinicians may assess for joint pain in children, including how to differentiate potentially more serious diseases. “Often, children with joint pain have normal physical exams on their first visit,” said Dr. Miller, who also practices pediatric rheumatology at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “The key is understanding that children take longer to develop manifestation of diseases, so repeated exams will be necessary.”

Screening for MSK Pain Syndromes in the Pediatric Population

Even when a child with joint pain has a normal initial physical exam, conditions such as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) or malignancies may be diagnosable on subsequent visits. Monitoring to rule out other diagnoses is therefore crucial, Dr. Miller noted. One of the most common causes of arthralgia in children is hyper-extensibility arthralgia (often associated, for unknown reasons, with a low titer positive ANA blood test). Most patients do well with reassurance and physical therapy. Over time, it is important, however, to watch for the development of subclinical enthesitis or arthritis, he noted.

In addition, Dr. Miller noted that one way to help distinguish children with organic causes of arthralgia from those whose joint pain is to consider psychological issues: many children with organic based arthralgia are depressed about missing school and make every effort to attend. In contrast, in Dr. Miller’s experience, children with musculoskeletal (MSK) pain syndromes tend to be anxious about returning to school, and they often have multiple absences. In all cases, however, diseases causing arthralgia will need to be considered by appropriate history, physical findings, and laboratory results, including those for:

  • Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis
  • Lupus (SLE)
  • Mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD)
  • Scleroderma.

Dr. Miler shared the case of a 5-year-old with wrist pain but no swelling or loss of motion. He was anemic with blood test results that also showed neutropenia and lymphocytosis. As neutropenia and lymphocytosis are atypical for rheumatic diseases, children who present with joint pain in cases such as this may need to undergo a bone marrow test, he advised. In this case, the child was found to have leukemia.

Infection-based Joint Pain: “We also see kids with joint pain following a resolved infection,” said Dr. Miller. This could result from post-infectious arthritis (usually less than 6 weeks of pain); or reactive arthritis (often following a bacterial infection such as Lyme disease, enteritis or a UTI). A small number of these patients will develop chronic arthritis, which may be difficult to distinguish from JIA whose onset is accelerated by infection, he noted.

Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis: Dr. Miller reminded the audience that JIA is a diagnosis of exclusion. Systemic onset JIA may present with persistent fevers, salmon pink or evanescent rash on the trunk and extremities, and hepatospleno-megaly or adenopathy. A delay before synovitis develops is typical.

Enthesitis/Childhood Spondyloarthritis: He added that persistent pain over the heels/soles of feet may be an early sign of a subset of JIA affecting primarily ligaments and tendons (enthesitis); psoriatic arthritis or sports-related injuries should also be considered. Enthesitis-related arthritis may take months or years to manifest. Conditions that may mimic enthesitis include psoriatic and polyarticular arthritis.

Tests to Order

When assessing a child with arthralgia, with or without arthritis, first-line differential diagnostic tests may include:

  • ESR (Dr. Miller noted that results are normal in as many as half of children with active synovitis)
  • CBC (which may identify acute lymphocytic leukemia)
  • ALT (to rule out any underlying liver disease).

Small subsets of pediatric patients with lupus and JIA can develop interstitial lung disease, he warned, so clinicians need to be aware and cautious. Paying attention to fever, rash, adenopathy, and pain in other areas, for instance, is crucial. In some cases, an extensive workup for infectious disease and rheumatic disease may be needed.

An echocardiogram may be useful in evaluating the child with a persistent non-specific rash, adenopathy, joint pain, and fever. Results may show coronary artery aneurysm, thickened mitral valve, or pericardial effusion, findings in Kawasaki Disease, subacute bacterial endocarditis, and systemic-onset JIA, respectively. Back pain, Dr. Miller noted, is a unique symptom, with a broad differential. Because back pain may be referred from one part of the spine to another, an MRI of the entire spine is useful in excluding such causes as: spondylolisthesis, infections, tethered cord, syrinx, Chiari malformation, or tumor.

One simple guideline, offered by Dr. Miller: admit children who cannot walk, for observation and evaluation. He has had patients admitted whose evaluation revealed causes including iliac osteomyelitis, neuroblastoma, and even sexual abuse.

For the child with arthralgia and weakness, Dr. Miller recommends ruling out juvenile dermatomyositis, muscular dystrophy, and malignancy. Asking questions about weakness can help identify proximal muscle weakness seen in dermatomyositis (eg, can the child get out of bed, change clothes). Lab tests may include CPK. Normal results by themselves do not exclude inflammatory muscle disease, as they can be seen in children with chronic inflammatory muscle disease.

Overall, Dr. Miller shared a few personal clinical pearls:

  • Always look for additional symptoms
  • Review guidelines or differential diagnoses
  • Repeat physical exams
  • Use lab and imaging evaluations, including an echocardiogram with fever/rash/adenopathy
  • Consider leukemia – remember lymphocytosis and neutropenia are unusual in rheumatic diseases.

On Medication Management

Although his talk focused on assessment, not treatment, of arthralgia, Dr. Miller did offer some best practices based on his clinical experience. “If a child has a pain syndrome, we avoid medication as much as possible,” said Dr. Miller. Instead, his hospital team focuses on physical therapy and non-medical approaches, including relaxation techniques, guided imagery, and meditation. They avoid steroids and only trial NSAIDs for short periods. He also recommends referral to a pain clinic for any other necessary medication management.

On Communicating with Parents

Finally, Dr. Miller offered some advice for communicating with parents who are rightly concerned about their children’s problems, including missed school.

  • Avoid telling a parent that “nothing is wrong” with their child and avoid suggesting that the child’s pain is a psychological issue. Instead, explain why you may not be able to make a diagnosis at this time.
  • Talk about the importance of follow-up and repeated exams. By monitoring for physical changes several times a year, you will be able to consider other diagnoses.
  • Communicate about conditioning and recommend a program, such as that under the supervision of a physical therapist, so that any lack of activity due to arthralgia does not lead to deconditioning.

Lastly, Dr. Miller advised that it is important to recommend a psychologist or psychiatrist as any child with chronic pain is likely living with secondary stress as a result of dealing with their pain, especially if they are not making a lot of progress—whether they realize it or not. Many parents may not want to hear this, but it is still important that they do.

–Reported by Angie Drakulich, PPM Managing Editor


    Last updated on: April 12, 2019
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