Many conditions can cause joint pain, but not all will affect all the joints at once. Sudden and widespread joint pain can result from infections, inflammatory diseases, and complications of some health conditions.

An athlete lying down on a running track holding her knee due to sudden joint pain.Share on Pinterest
Hugo Abad/Getty Images

Influenza (flu) is a common infection that can cause sudden joint pain. Some types of arthritis and autoimmune diseases can also do this.

The treatment for this symptom will depend on what is causing it. Some causes do not require medical intervention, while others do. People should consult a doctor for a diagnosis and to discuss the best way to manage the pain.

This article looks at some of the reasons all the joints may hurt suddenly and the treatments for each condition.

Flu is a common infectious illness. Unlike cold symptoms, flu symptoms can begin fairly suddenly. Symptoms may include:

  • joint pain
  • muscle aches
  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • fatigue
  • vomiting or diarrhea, although this is more common in children

Flu typically gets better on its own in 1–2 weeks. Most people who get the flu do not need medical treatment. However, the following populations have a higher risk of complications:

  • older adults
  • young children
  • pregnant people
  • people with weakened immune systems

A doctor may provide people in these groups with antiviral medication to shorten the duration of the illness and reduce the severity of the symptoms.

COVID-19 is another infectious illness. It can cause a range of symptoms, such as:

  • joint pain
  • body aches
  • fever or chills
  • headache
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • shortness of breath
  • new loss of taste or smell
  • stuffy or runny nose
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

Most people who get COVID-19 experience mild to moderate symptoms and get better without treatment. However, serious long-term complications are possible, including:

Some people are at greater risk of severe illness and complications from COVID-19, including:

  • older adults
  • people with chronic conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes
  • people with weakened immune systems

Everyone who is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine should get one to reduce the risk of serious symptoms, particularly people in these groups.

If a person does experience symptoms, they should seek testing as soon as possible, as this can allow them to begin antiviral treatment.

Although many people recover from common respiratory viruses on their own, some may experience symptoms that last weeks, months, or years after the initial illness. This can result in joint pain.

People may experience post-viral conditions such as:

  • Post-viral syndrome: This is a collection of symptoms that persist after a viral illness, including fatigue, pain, difficulty concentrating, and headaches.
  • Long COVID: “Long COVID” refers to persistent symptoms that some people develop after COVID-19. It can include a wide range of symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and postexertional malaise (PEM), which is when a person feels significantly unwell after physical or mental activity.
  • Reactive arthritis: This is a type of joint inflammation that can occur after an infectious illness, particularly food poisoning or a sexually transmitted infection. It causes swelling and pain in various joints, especially the hips, knees, ankles, and toes.

Reactive arthritis usually goes away on its own after a few months. A doctor may suggest treating any underlying bacterial infections with antibiotics or using medications to manage pain and swelling.

There are no standard treatments for post-viral syndrome or long COVID. Some people recover with time and rest, while others experience long-term symptoms. Doctors may recommend management strategies to help people cope.

Learn more about long COVID.

Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a chronic condition that can develop after a viral illness. However, sometimes there is no obvious trigger for its development.

Like long COVID and post-viral syndrome, ME/CFS causes significant fatigue, making daily tasks difficult. Other possible symptoms include:

  • joint pain
  • flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty thinking, or “brain fog”
  • orthostatic intolerance, or dizziness when standing up
  • PEM

If a person has PEM, then their symptoms may come on suddenly sometime after the activity that causes it.

There is no specific treatment for ME/CFS. Doctors focus on helping a person manage their energy and reduce their symptoms.

Learn more about ME/CFS.

Gout is a type of arthritis that can occur when a person has high levels of uric acid in their blood. The uric acid forms crystals in the joints, leading to inflammation, swelling, and pain.

Gout attacks can come on suddenly, peaking in 12–24 hours after the symptoms first appear. It usually affects only one joint or limb, such as one foot. Less commonly, people may get polyarticular gout, which affects multiple joints.

Treatment focuses on reducing uric acid levels, reducing inflammation, and relieving symptoms through diet and lifestyle strategies. If symptoms do not improve, a doctor may prescribe medication to lower the amount of uric acid in the blood.

Autoimmune conditions cause the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissue in the body. This can lead to inflammation and pain in the joints. Examples of autoimmune conditions that can cause joint pain include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is a chronic inflammatory disorder that primarily affects the joints. It causes stiffness, pain, and swelling. Without proper treatment, it can damage the cartilage and bone within the joints. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing joint damage and may include medication, physical therapy, and exercise.
  • Lupus: Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic autoimmune condition that can affect many areas of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, and brain. It causes inflammation and tissue damage. Lupus currently has no cure, but treatment can help people manage symptoms, prevent flares, and prevent organ damage.
  • Psoriatic arthritis (PsA): This form of arthritis affects 1 in 5 people who have the skin condition psoriasis. It causes painful inflammation and stiffness in the joints. PsA treatment involves using medication, physical therapy, and exercise to relieve symptoms and prevent further joint damage.

If a person has sudden joint pain and could potentially have COVID-19, they should follow their local health authority’s guidelines for testing.

It is important to note that COVID-19 affects people in different ways. People do not need to have all the potential symptoms. As a result, it is best to get a test if there is any doubt.

If the test is positive, a person should rest at home and stay away from others. They should not visit a medical facility without calling ahead first.

If the test is negative, a person can consult a doctor for a diagnosis. Sudden, widespread joint pain can be a symptom of many conditions, including some not listed in this article. A doctor can determine the underlying cause.

Call 911 for immediate help if a person has:

  • difficulty breathing
  • blue, gray, or white lips and nails
  • new confusion
  • pain or pressure in the chest
  • difficulty staying awake
  • signs of dehydration due to vomiting or diarrhea, such as dark yellow urine, a lack of tears or sweat, and extreme thirst

Sudden pain in all the joints can be a symptom of several conditions, including infections, gout, ME/CFS, and some autoimmune conditions. It can also be an indication of complications after an illness, such as post-viral syndrome or reactive arthritis.

If a person has joint pain and is unsure why, they should contact a doctor. Only a medical professional can determine the cause and advise on the best treatments.