Joint Pain

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Introduction

What is joint pain?

Joint pain is the sensation of discomfort or soreness in a joint or joints of the body. Joints are the spaces or areas where two or more bones meet, such as the hip, knee, shoulder, elbow and ankle. Joint pain can occur with or without movement and can be severe enough to limit movement. People may describe joint pain as discomfort, inflammation, increased warmth or burning, soreness, stiffness, or pain.

The joints allow our bones to move. They are made up of cartilage, ligaments, tendons, bursas (fluid-filled sacs that help cushion the joint), and the synovial membrane (lining of the joint capsule that secretes synovial fluid to lubricate the joint). Any of the structures in a joint can become irritated or inflamed in response to a variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders or conditions.

Your joint pain may last briefly or it may be chronic, which is defined as lasting more than three months. Joint pain has many causes. Sudden joint pain can be due to a mild muscle or ligament sprain, bursitis, or a dislocation. Chronic joint pain can be a symptom of serious and even life-threatening conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, leukemia, or bone cancer.

If you experience sudden joint pain with loss of mobility, contact a medical professional as soon as possible or seek emergency medical care. Early diagnosis and treatment can minimize discomfort and reduce your risk of serious complications.

If the pain lasts for more than a few days or is accompanied by a fever, unexplained weight loss or other unusual symptoms, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.  

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with joint pain?

Joint pain often occurs in conjunction with other signs and symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms can include joint swelling, redness, and fever. Tell your health care provider about any additional symptoms you are experiencing. This information will help your health care provider diagnose the reason of your pain.

Other joint symptoms that may occur with joint pain

Joint pain may occur with other symptoms related to the joint, including:

  • Joint noise (clicking, popping, crackling) 
  • Redness
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Visible deformity of the affected joint

Other symptoms that may occur along with joint pain

Joint pain may accompany symptoms that may seem unrelated to the joint, including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, joint pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as rheumatic fever, which should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition include:

  • Bleeding from minor injuries
  • Chest pain
  • Debilitating pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain in several joints with rash
  • Rapid, jerky movements
  • Redness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unexplained weight loss
Causes

What causes joint pain?

Joint pain can be due to fairly mild conditions, such as an overuse injury or sprain that responds well to rest and self-care measures.

Joint pain can also be due to traumatic injuries (dislocations), infections (septic arthritis or rheumatic fever), autoimmune diseases (Sjogren’s syndrome), chronic degenerative conditions (arthritis), or malignancy (cancer). Some of these diseases, disorders or conditions are serious and potentially life-threatening, especially if they are not treated promptly.

Injury-related causes of joint pain

Joint pain may arise from traumatic injuries including:

  • Contusions
  • Joint dislocation
  • Joint separation
  • Ligament sprains
  • Loose fragments of bone or cartilage
  • Overuse injury
  • Repetitive motion
  • Retained foreign body
  • Sports injuries
  • Torn ligament or cartilage

Infectious causes of joint pain

Joint pain may arise from infectious diseases including:

Degenerative, inflammatory, and autoimmune-related causes of joint pain

Joint pain can also be caused by the deterioration of the joint structure, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune diseases, such as:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of joints between the vertebrae of the spine)

  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)

  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)

  • Gout (type of arthritis)

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Psoriasis

  • Rheumatic fever

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Sjogren’s syndrome (an autoimmune disease that affects the mucous membranes and moisture-secreting glands of your eyes and mouth, initially causing dry eyes and mouth)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

  • Tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon)

Other causes of joint pain

Other causes of joint pain include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of joint pain

To diagnose the underlying condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your joint pain including:

  • What is the degree of pain?

  • When did the pain start?

  • Is a particular time of day it occurs?

  • How long does it last?

  • Are there any activities that cause the joint pain?

  • Are you experiencing any other sensations, such as numbness, tingling, and “pins-and-needles?”

What are the potential complications of joint pain?

Any complications associated with joint pain can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because joint pain can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications. It is important to contact your health care provider when you experience any kind of persistent joint pain or other unusual symptoms. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan outlined by your health care provider to reduce your risk of potential complications related to joint pain, such as:

  • Joint deformity

  • Loss of mobility

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent joint damage

  • Permanent joint immobility

  • Permanent joint instability

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Physical disability

  • Poor quality of life

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 7
  1. Arthritis Data and Statistics, http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics.htm
  2. Joint pain, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003261.htm
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011
  4. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009
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