Joints are important parts of the body that help limbs move. If a person experiences pain in the joints, known as arthralgia, it can be uncomfortable and affect their ability to partake in daily activities.
In this article, we discuss what joints are and some causes of joint pain, including their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
A joint is a point where bones make contact, connecting the skeletal system. Most joints are mobile, which allows the body to make different types of movement. There are three kinds of joint: fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial.
Fibrous joints are usually immovable. They include the cranium in the skull, the joints between the teeth and the sockets in the jaw, and the joints between the bones of the lower leg.
Cartilaginous joints are those where cartilage joins two bones. These joints are partially movable. One example is the joint between the right and left pubic bone.
Synovial joints are the joints that allow limbs to move freely. These joints have a cavity in them that contains synovial fluid. This fluid allows the bones that connect the joint to move around with ease. Some examples include the knee, elbow, hip, and shoulder.
Many conditions and factors can cause a person to experience joint pain. If a person has pain in multiple joints, it is known as polyarthralgia. Usually, joint pain is the result of injury, infection, illness, or inflammation.
Below are some of the common causes of joint pain:
Injury is a common cause of joint pain. Injuries can result from the excessive use or effort of the joints or from an impact that causes a fracture, sprain, or strain.
For example, a common knee injury is damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). People who play certain sports, such as soccer, basketball, or football, are more at risk of injuring their ACL.
Some infections may result in joint pain. For example, the hepatitis C virus (HCV) can cause complications that result in joint pain. It is common for people with HCV to have related rheumatic diseases, which can cause problems, including pain in the joints.
Some diseases can cause joint pain. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, and common symptoms include muscle and joint pain. In fact, joint pain is the first symptom for more than half of those who develop lupus.
People develop lupus because their body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue.
Arthritis and arthralgia are very similar but have key differences. Both describe joint pain, but arthralgia occurs without the distinct inflammation in the joint that characterizes arthritis. Nearly half of adults with arthritis report persistent joint pain.
The cause of arthritis varies among the different types.
OA results from cartilage loss in the joints. Calcification of the cartilage around the joints eventually makes the cartilage thinner before damaging it. Older adults are more likely to develop OA.
RA is an autoimmune response to a trigger. The body tries to fight off what it thinks is an invader but instead degrades the cartilage and bones in the joints.
Gout occurs due to the crystallization of uric acid in the body. Uric acid gets into the joint spaces, causing inflammation.
In most cases, septic arthritis results from a bacterial infection. Bacteria get into the synovial fluid in the joints, which eventually degrades the cartilage, leading to arthritis.
Other symptoms that commonly accompany joint pain include:
- joint tenderness
- joint stiffness
- joint swelling
- limited joint movement
- weakness in the joint, or the joint becoming unstable
The initial diagnosis of joint pain will likely involve an evaluation by a doctor. They will usually look at the person’s medical history and carry out a physical examination.
The doctor may ask questions, such as whether the pain appeared after an injury or whether there is a family history of joint disease. As part of the physical exam, they will inspect the joints and check their range of motion.
A doctor may order laboratory tests to help make a diagnosis. These may include blood tests to check for the following:
- rheumatoid factor
- erythrocyte sedimentation rate
- uric acid
- C-reactive protein
- antinuclear antibodies
Treatment for joint pain will vary depending on the underlying cause.
Typically, a doctor may prescribe pain medication to relieve pain. For example, for arthritis, they may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).
If the joint pain is due to an infection, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics or antivirals to reduce and manage the symptoms.
If the pain is due to an injury or arthritis, a doctor may refer people to a physical therapist for rehabilitation. In more severe cases, or if the pain persists, a doctor may recommend undergoing surgery.
The results of using home remedies will likely vary depending on the underlying cause of joint pain. People may be able to manage joint pain at home by taking over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, or using topical capsaicin.
Using the RICE method may also be beneficial for alleviating pain. This method involves resting the injured area, applying ice packs, wrapping the injured area with an elastic bandage, and elevating the area to reduce swelling. Using crutches or a wheelchair may also help a person avoid putting unnecessary pressure on painful joints.
It is important to seek medical attention if a person experiences any symptoms of joint pain that affect their daily activities or cause concern.
A doctor will be able to diagnose the condition and treat it or make a referral for specialist care.
Joint pain can be a result of several different conditions, including injury and infection.
People can often manage mild joint pain with home remedies, but medical treatment is likely to be necessary for severe or persistent joint pain.