Cartilage — the smooth, ultra-lubricated ends that contact as you move your hips, knees, shoulders, fingers and other joints — permits the smooth motion of all of the joints of your body. Over time, as a result of athletic activity, injuries, work and normal use, cartilage can wear down, eventually leading to pain and inflammation that occur due to the release of cell-signaling molecules from the degrading cartilage.
While this inflammation is a sign of significant cartilage wear, your cartilage may have been thinning for years before you start to feel the actual pain of bone meeting bone, says Richard Diana, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon and clinical instructor of orthopaedics at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. However, you shouldn’t assume that any and all joint pain is osteoarthritis — "There are more than 100 kinds of arthritis," says Diana. Pain, weakness or stiffness may signal other problems, too, such as a gradually fraying muscle, an autoimmune disease like lupus or an infection like Lyme disease, he adds.
If you have joint pain that’s severe despite the use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and that pain is limiting your normal day-to-day function, it’s essential to get checked by your primary care practitioner or an orthopaedic doctor. During the process of obtaining a diagnosis, you can expect to undergo testing, questioning and a variety of procedures that’ll help your doctor fully determine what’s causing your pain.