Joint inflammation can lead to swollen, painful joints. Depending on the cause, it can affect one particular joint or be more widespread, affecting multiple joints throughout the body.
Inflammation is the body’s normal immune response to an injury, infection, or irritant. Allergies, wounds, and diseases can all cause inflammation. The most common causes of joint inflammation are injuries and inflammatory arthritis.
Pain and inflammation resulting from injuries usually resolve, but inflammatory arthritis is a chronic condition that may get worse with time. Keep reading to learn more.
Joint inflammation occurs when the immune system or damaged tissue releases chemicals that cause swelling and other symptoms in a joint. It can affect just one joint, such as when a person sustains an injury. However, certain medical conditions can lead to multiple instances of joint inflammation throughout the body.
When a joint is inflamed, the blood vessels around it dilate to allow more blood to reach it. White blood cells, which play a crucial role in the body’s immune response, rush to the inflamed site, where they work to fight any infection or irritant.
This response leads to inflammation in this area. The joint may feel hot or painful, and the inflammation may intensify the pain of an underlying injury or infection.
In the short term, inflammation helps the body fight off dangerous invaders. However, chronic inflammation can damage the joint.
The most common causes of joint inflammation are:
An injury to a joint usually causes localized inflammation. However, it can sometimes cause inflammation in several joints if they are very close together. For example, if a person injures their foot, they might have joint inflammation in several toes.
Swelling is the body’s natural response to an injury. Inflammation helps the body deliver nutrients and white blood cells to an injured joint to fight off infection and promote healing.
However, inflammation is painful, and intense swelling may actually slow healing. Anyone who experiences inflammation that is serious enough to interfere with everyday functioning should see a doctor.
Arthritis is a group of conditions that affect joint health. Inflammatory forms of arthritis cause inflammation in the joints. Most types of inflammatory arthritis are chronic, progressive conditions. They may begin in one joint but eventually progress to other joints.
Some examples of inflammatory arthritis include:
Many types of inflammatory arthritis are autoimmune diseases, which means that they appear when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.
However, some infections can also cause inflammatory arthritis. Septic arthritis happens when a joint becomes infected. Sometimes, an infection in another area of the body travels through the bloodstream to a joint.
This type of inflammation is not chronic and usually gets better with treatment. Without quick treatment, though, there is a risk of permanent damage to the joints and bones.
Some symptoms of joint inflammation include:
- difficulty moving the affected joint or joints
- swelling or bulging in the joint
- pain or aching in the joint
- pain around the joint
- pain elsewhere, as a person may modify their activities or pattern of movement because of the pain
- redness or warmth around the joint
When the symptoms appear following an injury, inflammation is usually just a short-term response to the injury.
People who notice ongoing inflammation or pain may have arthritis. Joint pain that occurs with a fever or following an infection may signal a joint infection that requires immediate medical treatment.
The right treatment for inflammation depends on the cause. Some minor injuries will improve on their own with rest and time. More serious injuries may require medical treatment or even surgery.
People with a bacterial infection often need antibiotics. In severe cases, they may need to stay in the hospital.
For serious injuries and chronic inflammation, these medical treatments may help:
- Prescription medication: These may include prescription-strength pain relievers or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), arthritis medications, or anti-inflammatory medications, such as metformin.
- Injections: Corticosteroid injections can help reduce inflammation and ease pain.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help a person regain functioning and prevent damage to surrounding muscles and structures.
- Dietary changes: Some evidence suggests that certain herbal supplements or dietary changes may help the body fight inflammation. The research assessing these interventions, however, is not conclusive. It is best to talk with a doctor before making significant dietary changes.
- Alternative and complementary remedies: Some people find relief from acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, and other forms of alternative medicine. A doctor is likely to advise only using these remedies alongside standard treatments to maximize the benefits.
Several home remedies can help with most types of inflammation, regardless of the cause:
- RICE: Rest, ice, compression, and elevation can help in the early days following an injury. A person can try applying an ice pack for about 20 minutes at a time, resting the joint, and keeping it elevated as much as possible. A wrap can compress the joint, reducing inflammation.
- Exercise: The right exercise can improve function and help injuries heal faster. However, it is important to talk with a doctor or physical therapist about safe exercise options for both short-term and chronic inflammation.
- Pain medication: Over-the-counter drugs, particularly NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, may help with pain and inflammation.
- Massage: Some people find that massaging the area around the injured joint is helpful.
- Heat: Heat may help some forms of inflammation. Immediately following an injury, however, heat can make inflammation worse, so it is best to wait a few days before using this remedy.
- Epsom salts: Some people find that Epsom salt soaks, such as in a warm bath, help ease pain.
A person should contact a doctor or healthcare provider if:
- the pain of an injury does not get better after a few days
- the pain is so intense that walking, sleeping, and other daily functions are impossible
- they develop chronic pain or joint inflammation that does not go away with home treatment
- the treatment that once helped with inflammation stops working
- they develop new symptoms.
It is necessary to go to the emergency room or call 911 if:
- a person develops intense joint pain along with a fever
- joint pain is so severe that it is unbearable
- a person suspects that they may have broken a bone
Inflammation comes in many forms, and it can affect a single joint or many joints throughout the body.
Short-term joint inflammation from an injury usually goes away on its own.
While chronic inflammation can be difficult to treat and may get worse with time, various medications can help. A person can contact a doctor for help managing all forms of inflammation.