Post-traumatic arthritis is any kind of arthritis that occurs from an acute injury to the joints. Although post-traumatic arthritis usually resolves spontaneously after a few months, some cases of post-traumatic arthritis may become chronic.

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Post-traumatic arthritis may arise many years after an acute injury has occurred. It can take the form of osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis.

This article will provide a detailed account of post-traumatic arthritis, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, management, and outlook for a person.

Arthritis is a condition that affects a person’s joints. Symptoms such as inflammation, pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility may affect any joint over any length of time.

As a recent article explains, post-traumatic arthritis is any form of arthritis that results from a direct and acute traumatic injury to the joints.

When trauma causes the smooth surfaces of joints to become irregular, they rub against each other, which causes accelerated wear of the cartilage.

On average, 20–50% of people with joint trauma may develop post-traumatic arthritis. Post-traumatic arthritis is a type of arthritis and can take either of two forms: osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis worldwide. It arises due to joint usage over a period of time. Inflammatory arthritis is less common, and it often arises due to an autoimmune reaction that causes high amounts of joint inflammation.

Areas where it may occur

Certain body parts are more likely to develop post-traumatic arthritis than others. These include the:

  • ankle
  • knee
  • shoulder
  • hip

How long will it take to develop?

Post-traumatic arthritis has a highly variable development phase. Some people with this condition will notice symptoms a few months after the acute injury, such as:

  • swelling
  • synovial effusion, or joint inflammation
  • severe pain
  • sometimes internal bleeding

Other people may not have any arthritis symptoms for 10–20 years after the injury.

How long will it last?

Most cases of post-traumatic arthritis resolve spontaneously after around 2–3 months. However, doctors consider this condition chronic if symptoms persist after 6 months.

A person should consult a doctor if they notice any symptoms at any time after an injury.

The cause of post-traumatic arthritis is an acute traumatic injury to a person’s joints. Research has shown that such injuries can arise from several sources, including:

  • vehicle accidents
  • sports
  • falls
  • military injuries

Although a single traumatic incident can cause post-traumatic arthritis, the risk also further increases with:

  • age
  • multiple injuries
  • individuals with excess body weight

As a recent study explains, it is only possible for doctors to diagnose post-traumatic arthritis after arthritis symptoms have begun.

Although there is some variation, a 2022 review details the more common diagnostic methods:

  • laboratory tests on bodily fluids to determine the amount of inflammation around the joints
  • imaging techniques, such as X-rays or MRI scans, to detect certain signs of arthritis, such as joint narrowing
  • synovial fluid examinations to differentiate between different kinds of arthritis

Doctors must consider the results of several such diagnostic tests before making a confident arthritis diagnosis. They will also ask about any past traumatic injury to diagnose post-traumatic arthritis.

Read more about arthritis from our dedicated hub.

When trauma occurs, doctors can perform surgery if a person has sustained an injury to the joint. If there is a fracture within the joint, surgeons may realign joint surfaces. This will help limit the severity of the joint damage and slow the degenerative process.

Treatment also focuses on minimizing the symptoms, which may involve the following interventions:

If a person’s post-traumatic arthritis becomes chronic, treatment will vary from case to case. The 2022 review notes that several types of treatment can slow disease progression. These include:

A person can discuss with a doctor the nonsurgical and, in some cases, surgical options to consider what is the most appropriate treatment.

One measure to help prevent trauma or fracture within the joint would be to avoid activities like high intensity and high impact sports.

For people who experience symptoms of arthritis, at-home measures may prove somewhat effective. For example, they can take over-the-counter painkillers to relieve symptoms and pain.

Other measures may also include seeking mental health care to help manage the psychological impact of this condition on their quality of life. An individual can consult a medical professional to explore other methods to manage this condition in the long term.

The symptoms that occur during the acute phase of post-traumatic arthritis may spontaneously resolve after a couple of months. However, the condition may slowly progress through a long period of no symptoms referred to as a “clinically asymptomatic latency period.”

Even acute post-traumatic arthritis can be challenging to live with due to the pain and reduced mobility that it may cause.

Moreover, those individuals who develop chronic forms of the disease will have to consult a doctor to find the most suitable way to manage symptoms.

When someone develops arthritis after an acute traumatic injury to the joints, doctors refer to it as post-traumatic arthritis, which is a form of arthritis. This condition may resolve without medical assistance.

However, some people will develop a chronic form of post-traumatic arthritis. These individuals may require long-term medical care and, in some severe cases, surgery to replace the affected joint.