What Is Joint Pain?: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention
For many people, it’s a daily battle to manage joint pain and inflammation. Joint pain can range from being mildly painful to excruciating. When joint pain is linked to a chronic condition, it can affect a person’s daily activities.
People of any age can develop joint pain, especially when caused by an autoimmune condition. However, it is much more common in older adults. Arthritis, which usually affects people as they get older, is a common source of joint pain.
While it isn’t always possible to resolve the underlying condition and eliminate joint pain altogether, finding the cause and undergoing treatment can reduce discomfort, improve mobility, and enhance a person’s quality of life.
What is Joint Pain?
The joints are areas in the body where the bones meet. Various tissues, including ligaments, tendons, and cartilage, are designed to cushion and connect the bones. Joints are mobile but can be prone to injury due to their lack of strength.
Without joints, we would not be able to bend our arms, legs, and other body parts. However, inflammation in the joints leads to discomfort that can sometimes become debilitating. When joint pain is severe, mobility can be affected.
Joint pain is a symptom of many different health conditions, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. Patients must work closely with their doctor to identify factors that might be contributing to joint pain.
Signs & Symptoms of Joint Pain
People with joint pain will experience discomfort, pain, stiffness, or swelling in one or more joints of the body. It’s normal to have joint pain from time to time. You might experience aching joints when you have the flu, which is caused by the body’s immune response to the virus.
When there’s no clear, temporary cause for aching joints, the issue might be caused by an underlying health condition. It’s important to take joint pain symptoms seriously to find relief and rule out any potentially serious problems.
Causes of Joint Pain
There are many different causes of joint pain. Joints frequently become injured due to instability or overuse, but other conditions can also cause joint pain.
Some of the most common causes include:
- Osteoarthritis—a degenerative joint condition related to age
- Rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune condition mostly affecting the joints
- Bursitis—inflammation of fluid-filled sacs cushioning the joints
- Gout—a buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint
- Fibromyalgia—a disorder causing musculoskeletal pain throughout the body
- Sprains—stretched or torn ligaments due to injury
- Tendonitis—inflamed tendons
- Hypothyroidism—low thyroid production
- Lyme disease—a tick-borne bacterial infection
These are just a few of the many sources of joint pain. Patients with serious illnesses like leukemia, bone cancer, or lupus may also experience joint pain. It can also be a symptom of sarcoidosis, rickets, complex regional pain syndrome, psoriatic arthritis, and more.
Because the causes of joint pain range from simple sprains to age-related changes in the body or even autoimmune diseases, it’s important to see your doctor right away if you’re experiencing unexplained joint pain.
Your doctor will start the diagnostic process by asking you about your joint pain. They will want to know where the pain occurs and when it began. They will also want to know how severe the pain is and about any events or illnesses that could have contributed to your joint pain.
Your doctor will also ask whether resting your joints makes the pain better or worse. These preliminary questions will help your doctor gain insights into the possible causes of the pain before they run any tests.
Your doctor might order different tests to pin down a joint pain diagnosis, depending on your answers.
You might need one or more of the following tests:
- An x-ray of the affected joint(s)
- Blood tests to detect autoimmune disorders
- Joint aspiration to check for crystals, white blood cell count, and infection
- Complete blood cell count
- C-reactive protein and/or sedimentation rate blood tests to check for inflammation
The diagnostic process for joint pain can take a while if the cause is difficult to identify. It can be challenging to manage your pain while waiting for answers. However, your doctor should be able to give you some strategies for pain management during the process.
There are many different joint pain treatments, depending on the cause of the issue. You may need to try other therapies before finding a treatment plan that helps ease your symptoms.
In some cases, especially for acute joint pain with a clear cause, such as overuse, rest (avoiding activities that cause pain or swelling), and simple at-home care are enough to reduce soreness and improve joint pain. Your doctor might recommend hot and/or cold therapy, warm baths, compressive or supportive aids, specific types of stretching and exercise, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and other types of supportive care for mild sprains and other forms of acute joint pain.
Other conditions causing joint pain might require pain management, antibiotics, or even surgical drainage. Your doctor might recommend physical therapy to ease your symptoms as well. They can also share tips on preventing joint pain in the future.
Chronic joint pain can be challenging to treat. It’s important to maintain a close relationship with your doctor and be honest about the level of pain you are experiencing. That way, you will be able to gain access to the most appropriate treatments that could help you find relief.
Whether you believe your joint pain is acute or chronic, the next step is to talk with your doctor. They will guide you through the diagnostic process, answer your questions, and offer you treatment options. Self-diagnosing joint pain can lead to several different issues, so don’t try to avoid going to the doctor if your daily activities are affected by pain.
If you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as an autoimmune disorder (caused by your immune system) or arthritis, then it can be helpful to find a support group you can join. Many people find that their friends and family members cannot fully understand their condition and gain comfort from talking with others who have the same struggles.
Medical/scientific content reviewed by Kelsey Powell, MS, Medical Sciences