Joint pain can be a mild annoyance that crops up just once, or it can be a clue that you have something a little more serious going on. Here are some of the many reasons you may have joint pain as well as when it may be time to see a doctor.
What is a joint, anyway?
You’re likely familiar with joints — a joint is a place in the body where two (or more) bones are connected. You have tons of joints in your body: from the knuckles, which connect the bones of your fingers to your hips, which connect your femurs to your pelvic bones. Joints are also found in the spine, your feet and your jaw. Your joints include cartilage, which helps keep the connecting bones from grinding against one another, and a network of ligaments and tendons keeps everything held together so you can move around in the world.
However, just like any other body part, joints can and do become painful. Dr. David Spinner, a rehabilitation and physical medicine doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SheKnows that joint pain is a very common human experience and that almost everyone can expect to experience it at least once over the course of their lifetime. The good news? “Most benign causes of pain resolve in a few weeks,” he says.
Of course, some causes will need more attention, while others will improve on their own over time. Here’s a handy guide that spells out some of the very wide and varied causes of joint pain.
The most common cause of joint pain comes from osteoarthritis, which is degenerative wear and tear that occurs in joints as we age, Spinner explains. In other words, osteoarthritis is when the cartilage that protects our joints begins to break down, and this affliction is often found in those who are a bit older. However, fractures or injuries can spur on the development of arthritis, regardless of age, and some physically demanding professions and sports can also increase the risk.
There are other types of arthritis that have nothing to do with wear, tear, or age. Autoimmune arthritis can affect people of any age (yes, even children). Rheumatoid arthritis happens when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy tissue membranes in your joints, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Injuries like sprains are usually pretty apparent and obvious — if you’ve twisted or turned a body part and that joint later hurts, it could be a sprain. According to the Mayo Clinic, ankle sprains are extremely common, and the pain and swelling that result are caused by an over stretching of your ankle ligaments. Some sprains are mild, but others need medical attention.
Gout is a condition in which there is a buildup of uric acid, mostly in the joints, the Mayo Clinic notes. It often develops suddenly and usually attacks only one joint, typically in the toe, ankle or knee.
Bursitis is kind of like arthritis, but it’s not the actual joint causing the problem, the bursa is to blaim, according to Mayo Clinic. What is a bursa, you may ask? Bursae are found in many moving parts of the body and act like a cushion between these moving structures. As with every other body part, they can become inflamed and cause a great deal of pain.
Tendinitis is another condition that can cause a lot of joint pain. Tendinitis, according to the Mayo Clinic, is the inflammation of a tendon, which is a cord that attaches your muscle to your bone. Since joints are often surrounded by (and supported by) tendons, tendinitis can manifest as joint pain. It can be caused by repetitive motions at work or at play — tennis elbow is a good example of tendinitis.
Yes, the flu can make you very ill in areas of your body that are not joints, but one of the symptoms of influenza can include joint pain, according to Harvard Medical School, which unfortunately pairs very well with muscle pain.
Although rare, Lyme disease, transmitted by the bite of certain kinds of ticks, can cause joint pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Rheumatic fever can happen if a strep infection is left untreated, but even then, it’s still rare — only around 5 percent of untreated strep infections eventually turn into rheumatic fever, according to the National Institutes of Health. You definitely don’t want it, though. It can affect your joints, your heart, your nervous system and/or your skin.
What are some at-home remedies?
Dr. Bryan Little, specialist in chief of the department of orthopedic surgery at the Detroit Medical Center, says that one of the biggest ways to alleviate joint pain is by moving more — yes, really. “Physical activity is the best and most common way to treat joint pain without any medical treatment,” he tells SheKnows. “By increasing activity, whether it be walking, swimming, jogging or playing a round of golf, you’re going to feel better.”
If you limit movement because you think it will aggravate the joint, you’re instead helping the surrounding muscles become weaker according to Harvard Health Publishing, which can affect your gait and posture and make the problem worse.
When should you seek help?
However, there are times when medical help should be sought out, especially if joint pain is affecting your everyday life and favorite activities, Dr. Little notes. Since there are a number of things that can cause joint pain, from mild injuries to serious problems, it can be hard to sort out when to see a doctor, when to take a pain reliever and when to just wait it out. Fortunately, Spinner says that while most benign joint pain issues resolve on their own, there are a few clues that will tell you to seek medical help.
“If the pain does not improve over a week or two or if the pain is severe and not allowing for normal use, you should visit a physician,” Spinner says. “Other reasons to seek medical attention include redness, swelling or a fever.”
Joint pain is not a lot of fun, as it can impact how well you get around and how easy it is to rest at night. If you have any concerns, of course, consult your physician — they will be able to help you get back in the swing of things if there are issues that need to be addressed.
A version of this post was originally published in July 2018.
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