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

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Last updated January 25, 2021

Joint pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

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

Joint pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Joint pain symptom checker

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.


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.

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.

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 questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Joint pain symptom checker

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.

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

Knee arthritis

Arthritis is inflammation of one or more of the joints. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis. Any joint in the body may be affected by the disease, but it is particularly common in the knee.

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

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

Shoulder arthritis

Shoulder arthritis is inflammation of the shoulder joint, where the upper arm bone (humerus) meets the shoulder blade (scapula) and collarbone (clavicle). This inflammation can be caused by osteoarthritis or "wear-and-tear," injury to the shoulder joints, rotator cuff injuries, or r...

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

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att...

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis...


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


Lupus is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that happens when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells, tissues, and organs. Lupus is also a systemic disease and can affect multiple body systems including the heart, lungs, joints and even skin.

Since lupus can affect multiple organ systems, symptoms can...

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.

Joint pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Joint pain symptom checker

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.

Share your story
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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  2. Joint pain. NHS. Updated May 10, 2016. NHS Link.
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  5. Living with severe joint pain. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated March 7, 2017. CDC Link.