What Causes Joint Pain and Which Treatments Can Help Me?
Joint pain can range from a mild ache to severe, life-altering pain. And because your joints are so crucial to everyday activities, any level of joint pain can have a significant impact on your health, mood, and quality of life. Read on to learn more about common joint pain causes and what you can do to relieve your pain.
Where do most people experience joint pain?
You have joints all over your body. Any place where one bone connects with another, a joint is there bringing them together. This includes everything from the ball-and-socket joints connecting your legs to your hips, to the hinge joints in your knees and fingers.
Where you experience joint pain will depend on what’s causing it, but some joints are more susceptible to certain conditions than others. Osteoarthritis affects 27 million people in the United States, making it the most common chronic joint condition. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint but is most common in the knees, hands, back, and hips.
Other conditions tend to target other joints. Tendonitis, for example, generally occurs in the legs, arms, and feet, and bursitis often affects the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail below.
Bilateral vs. unilateral pain
Many of your joints are part of a “set,” so to speak. In other words, you generally have two of each, and it is possible to experience pain in the matching joints on both sides of your body. This is called bilateral joint pain. Other people experience unilateral joint pain, or joint pain that only happens on one side of your body.
Whether your pain is unilateral or bilateral may change over time, and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes this happens as you attempt to compensate for the painful joint. If your left foot hurts, you are likely to move differently, putting more pressure on your right foot while walking or standing. This additional pressure can eventually result in pain in both of your feet.
Other times, the shift from unilateral to bilateral pain is part of the disease’s progression. According to a study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders in 2012, 80% of people with osteoarthritis in one knee (unilateral) will develop it in both knees (bilateral) within twelve years.
What causes joint pain?
The causes of this type of pain are as numerous and complicated as the joints themselves. Here are a few of the most common ones.
Arthritis is perhaps the most well-known cause of joint pain. There are many different kinds of arthritis. What they all have in common is that they cause your joints to become swollen, causing pain and a variety of other symptoms. Older people are more likely to develop arthritis, but it can affect people of all ages.
Among the most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, there are many other varieties. Ankylosing spondylitis usually, but not always, affects the spine. Gout is another form of arthritis that, rather than causing constant pain, flares up for days or weeks at a time before subsiding. It most often affects your big toe, though occasionally symptoms manifest elsewhere in the foot and even in other joints.
This can refer to unpredictable, one-time injuries, such as a fall or an accident. But more often, joint injuries come about from gradual wear and tear rather than a single event.
If you engage in a lot of physical activity, especially activity that involves repetitive movements, you are at increased risk of hurting your joints. A sport like gymnastics or a job that involves a lot of lifting or bending are examples of activities that may result in joint injuries.
The bursa are fluid-filled sacs that cushion your joints. When they become inflamed, they cause joint pain.
Bursitis is often the result of many small injuries brought about by repetitive movements. For example, if your job or hobby requires you to reach over your head a lot, you are more likely to develop shoulder bursitis.
Your tendons connect your bones to your muscles. Sometimes, a tendon becomes inflamed, and this condition is called tendonitis (also spelled tendinitis).
Tendonitis can be caused by overuse, injury, or another condition, such as arthritis.
This potentially devastating condition affects women more than men. It may be caused by another medical event, such as an illness or infection, although this isn’t always the case.
One of its most distinguishing traits is chronic pain throughout the body, especially in the joints. Other symptoms include chronic fatigue and memory problems.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects everyone differently.
For many people, lupus means joint pain and stiffness, especially in the hands and knees.
Surgery can be an effective method of treating conditions too serious for more common treatments. But it is also very traumatic for your body.
Symptoms like pain can linger for a while after the operation. And if you’ve had an operation on your joints, such as a knee replacement, you will likely suffer from joint pain for a while afterward.
Not all joint pain causes are physical. It is an established fact that mental illnesses, such as depression, also lead to physical symptoms.
Depression can cause a variety of physical symptoms in addition to joint pain, including insomnia and changes in appetite.
4 common joint pain symptoms
As if joint pain on its own isn’t bad enough, it is often accompanied by a host of other, equally troublesome symptoms. Here are four of the most common.
- Stiffness is a very common complaint among joint pain sufferers. You might have trouble bending the affected joint, especially when you first wake up in the morning.
- Swelling is the result of too much interstitial fluid, or the fluid in the tissue, building up in one area. It usually happens when an area has been irritated or injured, such as by an injury or a chronic disease like arthritis. If you have swelling, your joint(s) will appear larger than normal.
- Warmth often occurs in tandem with swelling. An excess of interstitial fluid causes them both. Your joint may appear red and feel warm to the touch.
- Finally, weakness may accompany your joint pain. You may find it difficult to perform even simple tasks, such as lifting a gallon of milk or buttoning a shirt, that you once performed with ease.
Is joint pain serious?
The severity of joint pain will depend on a variety of factors, including the cause of pain, how long you’ve had the condition, and how long you’ve gone without treatment.
Some joint pain causes will resolve over time with proper treatment. Others will never go away completely and may even get worse. Arthritis, for example, is a degenerative condition; the symptoms will continue to worsen over time.
If you are experiencing fever, prolonged or extreme swelling, and/or joint pain severe enough to prevent you from performing your regular activities, see your doctor right away. This is true regardless of what’s causing your pain: if you have these symptoms, it’s time to go to the doctor.
How do I get a joint pain diagnosis?
Only a doctor can officially diagnose the cause of your symptoms. At your appointment, your doctor will go over your medical history with you. They might also recommend running diagnostic tests to figure out the cause of your joint pain. The exact nature of the tests will depend upon your other symptoms.
For example, different blood tests are commonly used to diagnose arthritis. To diagnose lupus, on the other hand, your doctor will likely run several tests designed to diagnose other conditions with similar symptoms. Once all other possibilities have been eliminated, a lupus diagnosis can be made.
X-rays or CT scans are also used in cases of joint pain. These tests provide a clear picture of your bones and can show if there is any deterioration or damage.
In general, the earlier you get a diagnosis and begin treatment, the better chance you have of preventing permanent damage and ensuring the maximum possible recovery for your joints.
How do you treat joint pain?
There are many ways to relieve joint pain. You may have already tried some of them. If your current treatment plan is working for you, there’s no reason to change it. If not, one or more of the joint pain remedies listed below may be worth a try.
Before experimenting with new treatments, always talk to your doctor to ensure that each treatment is safe for you. Some could actually worsen symptoms or lead to more damage.
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, can help in many cases of joint pain. But when these medications aren’t enough to relieve joint pain, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. This is especially true in cases of depression or lupus, when more specialized medication may be required to keep symptoms under control.
Regardless of whether the medicine you take is prescription or over-the-counter, take care to read all instructions and to never take more than the recommended dose.
Heat/cold therapy is a simple treatment that has the potential to work wonders on your joint pain. Whether you use heat, cold, or both will depend on what’s causing your pain.
The Cleveland Clinic recommends heat therapy for arthritis, since heat generally works better in cases of chronic pain. Do some research and talk to your doctor about which treatment is best for you.
Rest and exercise
Exercise and rest can both be very effective joint pain treatments. Of course, if you’re experiencing chronic joint pain, the prospect of resting is probably much more tempting than exercising. And in some cases, that instinct is exactly right!
If your joint pain is caused by an injury or a condition brought about by an injury (e.g. bursitis), resting and giving your joint the chance to properly heal is usually more important than exercising it—at first.
Once the affected area starts to feel better, you can generally begin physical activity again. Exercise is also important in cases of chronic joint pain; it strengthens your joints so they feel better longer. There are numerous gentle exercises designed for people with chronic joint pain. Always talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise or stretching program.
Maintaining a healthy weight may also improve joint pain. Being overweight puts extra pressure on your joints, while being at a healthy weight can improve both your joint health and your overall health.
In cases of gout, avoid seafood, red meat, and alcohol. These increase the amount of uric acid in the blood, which in turn can lead to a flare-up of gout.
A physical therapist is someone specially trained to help people whose injury or illness has reduced the range of motion in a joint or limb. They will examine the affected area and guide you through a treatment regimen.
A physical therapy regimen will likely include several of the treatments mentioned above, including exercises and lifestyle changes. Physical therapy can help reduce pain and increase your range of motion.
Injections and surgery
In the more extreme cases, when none of the treatments listed above are working, you may consider injections or surgery. Neither injections nor surgeries are first-line joint pain remedies. The overwhelming majority of joint pain causes do not require such drastic measures.
However if you’re still suffering in pain, cortisone shots are often used when pain is caused by inflammation, such as arthritis. This treatment can help ease your pain and allow you to undergo physical therapy or another program to correct the underlying cause of your pain. However, long-term use of this treatment has potential side effects. It’s important to go over the pros and cons with your doctor before making a decision.
Surgery may be necessary in, for example, especially tough cases of bursitis, tendonitis, or arthritis. Which surgery your doctor chooses for you–and whether you are a candidate for surgery at all–will depend on the cause and severity of your joint pain.