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Joint Pain: Why Do I Have Joint Pain? Possible Causes & How to Get Relief

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Last updated March 2, 2022

Joint pain quiz

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Understand your joint pain symptoms with Buoy, including 10 causes and common questions concerning your joint pain.

Joint pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take joint pain quiz

Joint pain symptoms

Some say youth is wasted on the young. If you're currently suffering from joint pain symptoms, you probably agree. Those with youthful joints that don't ache or slow them down don't appreciate how lucky they are. If you're struggling to complete tasks that were once simple because of pain in your knees, ankles, wrists, fingers, or elbows, joint pain could be to blame.

Common characteristics of joint pain

If you're experiencing joint pain, it can likely be described by the following.

  • Pain, swelling, or stiffness
  • Locked-up joints
  • Difficulty bending
  • Trouble with activities that were once easy
  • Discomfort that causes you concern

Joint pain symptoms can start in any part of a joint, such as the cartilage, ligaments, tendons, bone, or muscles. The discomfort can be mild and only appear during strenuous activity or it can be classified as severe. If this is the case, you might experience joint pain symptoms even when not moving, and the smallest actions can be nearly impossible to complete.

Joint pain causes

Joint pain symptoms are associated with a multitude of conditions.

Arthritis

Joint pain is the main symptom of arthritis, a condition that causes stiffness and pain throughout the joints. There are different variations of arthritis which affect different parts of the body.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is an inflammatory condition that requires the care of a specialist, called a rheumatologist to manage.
  • Septic arthritis: This is an infection in a joint and is an emergency that needs prompt therapy.

Other conditions

Other conditions that often result in joint pain include the following.

  • Lyme Disease: This tick-borne illness can cause pain and swelling in the knees or other joints. Antibiotic therapy often improves this.
  • Viral infections: Mononucleosis and other viral infections can cause many side effects, including joint pain.
  • Gout: This is a disorder where uric acid crystals deposit in the joints often the big toe and create redness, warmth and swelling.
  • Fibromyalgia: The bad news is that fibromyalgia can cause joint and muscle pain. The good news is that it won't cause long-term or permanent damage to joints like arthritis can.
  • Menopause: Joint pain is common in menopausal women. The joints can begin to ache, stiffen up, or swell due to hormonal imbalances.

Shoulder arthritis

Shoulder arthritis means that there is inflammation and abnormal wear of one or both of the two joints in the shoulder.

Arthritis in any joint is most often be caused by long-term wear and tear, called osteoarthritis; by an autoimmune condition that attacks the joints, called rheumatoid arthritis; or by an injury, called post-traumatic arthritis.

Symptoms include pain, which becomes worse with use of the joint; limited range of motion, meaning the shoulder joint cannot move as far as it once did; and pain when resting or trying to sleep.

Shoulder arthritis cannot be cured, but symptoms can be managed to improve quality of life and ease pain and discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and x-rays. To confirm, an injection of anesthetic may be placed into the joint. If the pain is eased, arthritis is almost certainly the cause.

Treatment involves physical therapy; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease discomfort and inflammation; and corticosteroid injections into the shoulder to relieve pain. Surgery and shoulder joint replacement can be done in some cases.

Septic arthritis

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common agent is Staphylococcus aureus, or staph.

These agents reach the joints either from another infection in the body, or from a traumatic injury that contaminates the wounded joint.

Risk factors include existing joint disease or injury; a weakened immune system; and damaged skin. All of these things allow infectious agents to get a foothold.

Symptoms include severe pain in the affected joints, along with redness and swelling. The knees are most often affected but septic arthritis can occur in any joint.

The infection can damage cartilage and bone very quickly, so anyone with these symptoms should see a medical provider as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through a sample of the joint fluid; blood tests; and x-ray or CT scan of the joint.

Treatment involves draining the infected fluid from the joint, either with a needle or with surgery, followed by antibiotics.

Septic arthritis is also called infectious arthritis. "Arthritis" simply means inflammation of a joint. In septic arthritis, the inflammation is caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The most common agent is Staphylococcus aureus, or staph.

These agents reach the joints either from another infection in the body, or from a traumatic injury that contaminates the wounded joint.

Risk factors include existing joint disease or injury; a weakened immune system; and damaged skin. All of these things allow infectious agents to get a foothold.

Symptoms include severe pain in the affected joints, along with redness and swelling. The knees are most often affected but septic arthritis can occur in any joint.

The infection can damage cartilage and bone very quickly, so anyone with these symptoms should see a medical provider as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through a sample of the joint fluid; blood tests; and x-ray or CT scan of the joint.

Treatment involves draining the infected fluid from the joint, either with a needle or with surgery, followed by antibiotics.

Joint pain quiz

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Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of psoriasis, which causes the skin to become thickened, red, and scaly. Arthritis may appear before or after the psoriasis appears.

Both conditions are autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, and are thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Most susceptible are people from 30 to 50 years of age with a family history of the disease and who already have psoriasis.

Symptoms include the joints on one or both sides of the body becoming painful, swollen, and hot; swelling and deformity of the fingers and toes; pitted, flaking fingernails; foot pain in the heels and soles; and joint pain in the low back pain.

It is important to seek treatment, as psoriatic arthritis can permanently damage the joints, eyes, and heart.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-rays, and MRI. Blood tests and joint fluid tests can confirm psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment includes over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; anti-rheumatic medication; immunosuppressants; and steroid injections for the joints. Surgery to replace damaged joints may also be tried.

Mild/moderate hip arthritis

Arthritis of the hip is inflammation of one or more of the joints in the hip. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis. Hip arthritis can make it hard to do many everyday activities, such as walking or climbing stairs. It is a major cause of lost work time and a serious disability for many people.

The goal of hip arthritis treatment is to relieve pain and maintain the function of the hip. Your doctor will be able to suggest a future course of action, such as pain medication, walking aids, or changing to more appropriate footwear.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hip pain, difficulty walking, pain in one hip, limping, groin pain

Symptoms that always occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: hip pain

Symptoms that never occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: severe hip pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted through the bite of the deer tick (black-legged tick) after it has been attached for at least 36-48 hours. These may be tiny, immature ticks that are difficult to see, often attaching in a place on the body where hair grows.

The disease does not spread through casual contact, either between humans or between humans and pets.

Early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, and body aches. There may be a rash around the tick bite, which sometimes enlarges to form a clear circle around the bite.

Later symptoms are severe with headaches, neck stiffness, further rashes, facial drooping (palsy,) and joint pain and swelling. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Untreated Lyme disease in a pregnant woman can lead to stillbirth, but antibiotics will usually prevent this.

Diagnosis is made through symptoms as well as a blood test.

Treatment consists of oral antibiotics in most cases, though severe cases may require IV antibiotics.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, irritability, muscle aches, loss of appetite

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lupus

Lupus, also called systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE, is an autoimmune disease. It causes the body's protective system to attack its own tissues the way it would normally attack an invading substance or microbe.

The disease can take different forms depending on what system or organ is being attacked.

Symptoms may come and go, and may be mild or temporarily flare up. They include a butterfly-shaped rash spreading from the bridge of the nose over both cheeks; fatigue; fever; joint pain; chest pain; mental confusion; sensitivity to sunlight; and Raynaud phenomenon, where fingers and toes turn white when exposed to cold.

There is no cure for lupus, though symptoms can be treated to improve quality of life.

Diagnosis is made through a combination of tests, since the signs of lupus vary greatly. Blood tests, urine tests, kidney and liver tests, and antibody testing will all be done.

Treatment involves some combination of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants, along with improved diet, sleep, and stress management to help strengthen the immune system.

Lower back arthritis

Osteoarthritis, most often simply called arthritis, is a disease of cartilage. In joints, where bones touch and move against one another, cartilage helps provide lubrication for smooth movement, and acts as a shock absorber. Cartilage is also present in between vertebrae, which are the bones comprising the spine. Osteoarthritis of the spine, also known as degenerative joint disease, happens when the cartilage between vertebrae dries out and shrinks. The vertebrae are thus not as able to move smoothly against one another. The ability to walk and perform normal daily activities can be impaired due to inflammation and pain in the lower back.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, spontaneous back pain, back pain that gets worse when straightening it, back pain from overuse

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Knee arthritis

Knee arthritis means that there is inflammation and abnormal wear of one or both of the two joints in the knee.

Arthritis in any joint is most often be caused by long-term wear and tear, called osteoarthritis; by an autoimmune condition that attacks the joints, called rheumatoid arthritis; or by an injury, called post-traumatic arthritis.

Symptoms include pain, which becomes worse with use of the joint; limited range of motion, meaning the shoulder joint cannot move as far as it once did; and pain when resting or trying to sleep.

Knee arthritis cannot be cured, but symptoms can be managed to improve quality of life and ease pain and discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and x-rays. To confirm, an injection of anesthetic may be placed into the joint. If the pain is eased, arthritis is almost certainly the cause.

Treatment involves physical therapy; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease discomfort and inflammation; and corticosteroid injections into the knee to relieve pain. Surgery and knee joint replacement can be done in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: pain in both knees, knee stiffness, knee instability, swollen knee, morning joint stiffness

Symptoms that always occur with knee arthritis: pain in both knees

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Ankle arthritis

Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. Because the feet and ankles have many small joints and carry the weight of the body, they are often the first place that arthritis appears.

Ankle arthritis is caused by a breakdown in the protective cartilage at the end of each joint, so that the bones begin to wear against each other and the joint becomes stiff and painful. This breakdown may be due to simple wear and tear; an injury; or from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition which causes the body to break down its own cartilage.

Symptoms include swelling, warmth, and redness in the joint, and pain with movement or with pressure on the joint.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-rays, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for arthritis, but treatment is important because the symptoms can be managed to prevent further damage, ease pain, and improve quality of life. Treatment involves physical therapy, pain-relieving medications, and sometimes surgery to help repair damaged joints.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: swollen ankle, swollen foot, joint stiffness, pain in one ankle, ankle stiffness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Joint pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take joint pain quiz

Joint pain treatments and relief

Even if your joint pain is manageable with rest or over-the-counter medication, there might be another way to treat or possibly cure the condition.

When to see a doctor for joint pain

The following joint pain symptoms necessitate a trip to the doctor's office for further evaluation.

  • Joint pain symptoms that last for three consecutive days or more
  • Extreme difficulty walking or moving around
  • Extreme swelling, heat, or redness on the skin above the joint

At-home joint pain treatments

Here are a few joint pain treatments you can try at home:

  • Pain medication: Both over-the-counter and prescribed pain medication can help alleviate some of the discomfort from joint pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are some of the best options.
  • Heat and cold treatments: Use a heat pack on the affected area for 20 minutes. Immediately follow with a cold pack for an additional 20 minutes. Do this every day for mild joint pain symptoms.
  • Exercise: Though it may seem counterproductive, moving painful joints can help alleviate discomfort. Just make sure you're doing low impact exercises, like swimming.
  • Lose weight: If you're considered overweight, shedding a few excess pounds can make a difference in your joint pain.

FAQs about joint pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about joint pain.

Can joint pain be caused by vitamin deficiency?

Yes, joint pain can be caused by vitamin D deficiency. Prolonged vitamin C deficiency can also soften bones and cause limited joint pain. Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium you absorb and excrete through your urine. If you are not either making (via exposure to sunlight) or consuming enough vitamin D in your diet (in fortified foods like cereals and milk), then your body may not keep calcium as well as it normally would and you may have weakened bones and joint pain.

What diseases causes joint pain?

Many diseases cause joint pain. The most common causes of joint pain are arthritis, trauma, and inflammation either because of an infection or because of a hyperactive immune system. The most dangerous causes include different types of cancer and insufficient thyroid hormone.

What causes inflammation in joints?

Inflammation in joints can be caused by many things. If pathogens, viral particles, or foreign particles (dirt, glass) enter a joint space, they can cause inflammation. Additionally, sometimes the body reacts to its own chemicals (autoimmune illnesses) causing inflammation within joint spaces. Anti-inflammatory agents, antimicrobial agents to treat viruses or pathogens, and immunomodulators drugs (biologics) can be used to treat these problems respectively.

What causes severe joint pain?

Severe joint pain can be caused by inflammation that causes swelling within the joint and stretching of the joint capsule, destruction of the end of the bone or cartilage, and abrasion between the ends of the bone.

Is moderate joint pain an early sign of arthritis?

Moderate joint pain can be a sign of arthritis. Arthritis can be caused by different processes in the body. Early arthritis can feel like joint pain with certain movements. Usually these movements are predictable and the pain is elicited commonly by these movements. High impact activities like jumping or running can also cause pain. Moderate arthritis involves a more constant pain sensation that begins to limit daily activities and cause stiffness at times. Severe arthritis often involves dull/aching pain and episodes of intense fatiguing pain.

Questions your doctor may ask about joint pain

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you lost your appetite recently?
  • Are you experiencing a headache?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Peter Steinberg is a board-certified urologist and the director of endourology and kidney stone management at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is also an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. He received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Middlebury College (1999) and graduated from University of Pennsylvania Medical School (2003). He completed a urology residency a...
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References

  1. Starkebaum GA. Joint pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated December 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
  2. Joint pain. NHS. Updated May 10, 2016. NHS Link.
  3. Sufka P. Lyme disease. American College of Rheumatology. Updated March 2017. Rheumatology Link.
  4. Johnson LE. Vitamin D. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Updated September 2018. Merck Manual Consumer Version Link.
  5. Living with severe joint pain. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 7, 2017. CDC Link.