Joint Symptoms

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Introduction

What are the signs of joint problems?

Joint symptoms include pain, inflammation, soreness, achiness and stiffness. You may have difficulty moving the joint. The symptoms may occur in one joint or in multiple joints. The symptoms may be constant or variable, and they may improve or worsen with movement. If joint pain is present, it may be described as sharp, dull, stabbing, burning or throbbing, ranging in intensity from mild to severe.

Arthritis and other types of degenerative joint disease are among the most common causes of joint symptoms. Joint symptoms may also be related to a chronic underlying disease that affects other regions of the body. Injuries can also cause joint symptoms.

The duration and course of joint symptoms vary widely, depending on the cause. Symptoms caused by injury often have a sudden onset. In other cases, joint symptoms resulting from wear-and-tear damage or an underlying medical condition develop slowly and persist or worsen over time.

In rare cases, infections of the bone (osteomyelitis) or skin and soft tissues (cellulitis) in and surrounding a joint can spread throughout the body, resulting in shock and organ failure. Animal and insect bites cause bloodborne infections that generate notable joint misery. Another rare but potentially life-threatening cause of joint symptoms is cancer of the bones or the soft tissues of the joints.

Although life-threatening complications of joint symptoms are rare, seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have injuries that involve profuse bleeding or tissue damage, or for serious symptoms, such as high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), paralysis, loss of sensation, absent pulses in your feet, the inability to move a joint, or uncontrollable pain.

If your joint symptoms are persistent, recurrent, or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with joint symptoms?

Joint symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the joints may also involve other body systems.

Traumatic symptoms that may occur along with joint symptoms

Joint symptoms may accompany other symptoms of trauma including:

  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Joint noise (clicking, popping, crackling)
  • Joint pain
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
  • Stiffness

Other symptoms that may occur along with joint symptoms

Joint symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, joint symptoms may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition including:

  • Absent pulses in the feet
  • Bone protruding from your skin
  • 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
  • Extensive bleeding
  • Fever not associated with flu symptoms
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Neck stiffness
  • Problems with walking, talking, hearing, speech or vision
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Severe headache
  • Severe joint pain
  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain
Causes

What causes joint symptoms?

There are many causes of joint symptoms. The primary cause of joint symptoms is arthritis, or inflammation of the joints. Sudden joint symptoms may be due to an injury, while joint symptoms that develop and worsen over time may be due to an underlying disease or disorder.

Arthritic causes of joint symptoms

Inflammation due to arthritis can cause joint symptoms. Examples of arthritic causes of joint symptoms include:

Traumatic causes of joint symptoms

A number of common injuries can cause joint symptoms. These injuries include:

  • Broken bones
  • Dislocation of bones
  • Herniated disc (ruptured or slipped disc)
  • Injury from overuse of a joint
  • Loose fragments of bone or cartilage
  • Nerve entrapment or compression (pinched nerve), such as of the ulnar nerve in the arm
  • Repetitive motion disorders
  • Retained foreign body
  • Sprains and strains
  • Stress fractures
  • Tendon rupture

Infectious causes of joint symptoms

A number of infectious diseases can cause joint symptoms. These diseases include:

Other causes of joint symptoms

Other causes of joint symptoms include:

  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
  • Leukemia (cancer of the blood or bone marrow)
  • Medication side effects or allergic reaction to medication
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
  • Spondylitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal joints)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
  • Tendinitis

Serious or life-threatening causes of joint symptoms

In some cases, joint symptoms may be caused by a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of joint symptoms

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

  • Have you sustained an animal bite injury?
  • Have you had recent joint surgery?
  • Have you recently traveled outside the United States?
  • How long have you had your joint symptoms?
  • What joint or joints are affected?
  • What other symptoms are you experiencing?
  • When do your symptoms occur?
  • Are your symptoms worsened or relieved by movement or specific activities?

What are the potential complications of joint symptoms?

Because joint symptoms can be due to serious 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:

  • Amputation
  • Disability
  • Inability to perform daily tasks
  • Joint deformity and destruction
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent joint damage
  • Permanent joint immobility
  • Permanent joint instability
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Physical disability
  • Serious infections and gangrene
  • Severe discomfort or pain
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 19
  1. Joint pain. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003261.htm
  2. Arthritis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002223/
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012
  4. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009
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