Joint pain and stiffness are zero percent fun. Unfortunately, painful, achy or stiff joints are fairly common, and more likely to affect us as we age. Joint pain can affect many parts of the body: spine, knees, feet, hands, hips, wrists elbows or shoulders. Joint pain can feel like grating, throbbing, tightness or burning. Joint pain can vary throughout the day, starting strong in the morning and easing or loosening up as the day goes by. It’s finicky though, and after too much activity, it can roar back onto the scene.
Sometimes joint pain is just an annoyance, one that comes and goes. But in more severe cases joint pain or stiffness can be disruptive can hinder your ability to accomplish daily tasks, even those as simple as climbing a flight of stairs or getting a good night’s sleep.
What are the causes of joint pain?
Here are some possible causes. You are welcome to read them, but you are not welcome to immediately assume that your joint pain is being caused by the more serious possibilities listed. Call your doctor if you have persistent or acute joint pain and get to the bottom of it.
Broken bones. Makes sense, right? If you think you’ve broken a bone, call for medical help or go to the emergency room. Stop any bleeding by applying pressure to the wound with a clean bandage or towel. Immobilize the injury – do NOT try to realign or push back in a bone that is sticking out.
Inflammation. Chronic inflammation (AKA swelling) in your joints may damage bones, cartilage, tendons (which attach muscle to bones), or ligaments (which hold joints together). Inflammation can also be acute, such as from an injury. Inflammation of any type can irritate nerves and cause swelling, pain and stiffness.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is when your immune system attacks your body’s healthy tissues and bones, causing inflammation which can affect the lining of your joints, eventually eroding them. RA may also damage your blood vessels, eyes, heart, lungs and skin.
Bursitis affects the bursae – small, fluid-filled sacs – that cushion the structures affiliated with joints including muscles, tendons and joints. When bursae become inflamed, that’s bursitis. It often affects joints which perform frequent, repetitive motion, like shoulders, elbows and knees, but can also affect knees, heels and big toes.
Viral infections like parvovirus B19 is a possible cause of adult joint pain and stiffness. If you’ve recently noticed swelling and pain in several joints, and especially if you’ve been around a child with fifth disease, a parvovirus may be the culprit. Pain usually subsides within weeks or months.
Gout can make you feel like your big toe (or other affected body part) is on fire. It’s a common and complex form of arthritis and can affect anyone. Hallmarks of gout are severe attacks of pain, swelling and redness in one or more joints, most often in the big toe. Gout may come and go.
Osteoarthritis is a disease that causes joints to break down, most commonly in the hands, spine, hips and knees. Symptoms can be managed but the damage to joints cannot be reversed once it has occurred. Prevention and increased comfort are the goals of managing osteoarthritis.
Tendinitis is also commonly referred to as tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, jumper’s knee, swimmer’s shoulder or pitcher’s shoulder. It’s the irritation or inflammation of a tendon (the thick, ropy cords that attach bone to muscle), and it causes joint pain and tenderness of the areas nearby. Rest, pain medication and physical therapy are all the treatment needed for most cases, which subside in weeks or months.
Adult Still’s disease is a type of inflammatory arthritis which, though rare, can present with fevers, rash and painful joints. The inflammation causing the joint pain can ultimately destroy the affected joints. Often it’s the wrists. Adult Still’s can be a one-episode malady. It can also recur or remain constant.
Bone cancer can occur in any bone in the body but it tends to affect the long bones in the arms or legs, or the pelvis. It’s rare. Like really rare – less than one percent of all cancers are bone cancer. Treatment includes radiation chemo, surgical removal or a combination of the three.
Fibromyalgia symptoms include mood issues, memory problems, fatigue, muscle pain and joint pain. Symptoms can be triggered by a specific occurrence like surgery, physical trauma or infection or they can also build gradually over time.
Lupus is a tough disease to diagnose because it’s got many signs or symptoms in common with other illnesses and conditions.
Treatments for joint pain and stiffness
Depending on the root cause of the joint pain and stiffness, a number of treatment options may be deployed against them. We’ve started with the simplest home treatments and ended with those that require medical experts’ help.
Heat pad or ice. Apply heat or ice for short periods, several times a day. As a general rule, use ice for acute injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling. Use heat for muscle pain or stiffness.
Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, you may be placing extra stress and strain on your joints. Losing weight can ease this and make daily life less painful.
Acetaminophen or anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, sold under brand names such as Tylenol or Advil, can help reduce the pain.
Dietary supplements like glucosamine may help. Talk with your doctor before taking any supplements, though.
Exercise, such as low-impact aerobic activities like walking or swimming are best. Gentle stretching or mellow yoga may also help. If you’re usually a devotee of strenuous workouts like running or high-impact sports, you’ll want to ease up until you know it’s safe (or wise) to go hard again.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, making permanent damage to joints less likely.
Steroids like prednisone (a corticosteroid medication) can lower inflammation and decrease pain while slowing joint damage. Corticosteroid medications can be taken orally in pill form or injected into the joint in question. As with any medication, side effects are possible and can include weight gain, thinning bones and diabetes.
Physical or occupational therapy can help you strengthen your body and improve flexibility.
Supportive aids like orthotics in your shoes or knee braces can offer support and make movement easier. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you find the best option for you.
Surgery including joint repair, fusion or replacement is used when more conservative treatments fail. Joint surfaces can be smoothed and realigned, often arthroscopically (through small incisions over the joint). Smaller joints, like those in the ankles, fingers and wrists can be fused, locking two joints together. Hips, knees and other joints can also be replaced with artificial ones.
If you suffer from severe joint pain, talk to your primary care provider. For more lifestyle and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.