Joint Swelling

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is joint swelling?

Joint swelling, or joint effusion, is the enlargement of one or more of your joints due to an increase in the amount of fluid in the joint. Joint swelling may be caused by injury, such as a broken bone, or by an underlying medical condition or disease, such as arthritis or an infection. The fluid can be blood, pus, or a clear exudate.

Besides injury, arthritis is a common cause of joint swelling. Arthritis most commonly affects joints that undergo constant repetitive movements, such as the hips, knees or fingers, though it may be present in any joint. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two most common forms of arthritis, but there are many different types of arthritis. Approximately 50 million adults in the United States have some form of arthritis (Source: CDC Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source ).

Anyone may experience joint swelling, although older people are more prone to developing joint swelling due to an increased likelihood of arthritis and a general deterioration of the tendons and ligaments around the joints. Additionally, persons who are overweight, repetitively use their joints in strenuous activities, or have previously experienced a joint injury are more likely to develop joint swelling.

While you should always consult with a health care professional when you experience joint swelling, swollen joints that result from minor injuries, such as overuse or sprains, may be effectively treated with rest and the application of ice to the swollen joint.

Joint swelling may be an indication of a serious injury or an underlying medical condition and you should always consult with a medical professional if you experience joint swelling. However, if you experience joint swelling with other serious symptoms, including a fever, unexplained swelling or pain, persistent pain, loss of mobility in your joint, redness or warmth around the joint, or unexplained weight loss, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with joint swelling?

Joint swelling may accompany other symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying injury, disease, disorder or condition.

Common symptoms that may occur along with joint swelling

Joint swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms including:

  • Fever
  • Joint stiffness
  • Pain
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Visible deformity of the affected joint

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, joint swelling may be an indication of a serious underlying injury, such as a broken bone, disease, such as arthritis, or an infection that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have joint swelling along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Change in consciousness, such as loss of consciousness (passing out) and unresponsiveness
  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions
  • Fever
  • Loss of mobility
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Redness or warmth around the joint
  • Severe headache
  • Severe pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Unexplained swelling or pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

What causes joint swelling?

Joint swelling is commonly caused by injuries to the joint, including overuse or sprains, or by arthritis. However, there are a number of other underlying conditions and diseases that may also cause joint swelling.

Causes of joint swelling

Joint swelling may be caused by many events or conditions including:

  • Aging (general degeneration of the joints)
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Broken bone
  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
  • Gout (type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints)
  • Joint dislocation
  • Joint injury
  • Joint surgery
  • Neuropathic arthropathy (progressive degenerative disease of the bones in the joint)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatic fever (complication of strep throat)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
  • Sprains

Serious or life-threatening causes of joint swelling

In some cases, joint swelling may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of joint swelling

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

  • When did your joint swelling start?
  • Which joint is experiencing symptoms?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Have you had recent joint surgery?
  • Have you recently experienced an animal bite?
  • Have you recently traveled out of the country? (tuberculosis)
  • Do you have any other medical conditions?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Does the swelling stay consistent or does it vary through the day?
  • Have you had previous joint injuries or symptoms?
  • Is there anything you have tried that makes the swelling better or worse?

What are the potential complications of joint swelling?

Joint swelling is often caused by minor injuries to the joint, including overuse or sprains. However, joint swelling may also be a sign of more serious injuries, such as a broken bone, or underlying diseases, such as arthritis.

Because joint swelling can be due to serious injuries or diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Disability
  • Joint deformity and destruction
  • Loss of strength
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Spread of infection
Was this helpful?
  1. Arthritis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  2. Arthritis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011
  4. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 31
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