Joints are the junctions within the body where two bones come together; they can be as large as the shoulder or knee and as small as the knuckles on a finger. Our joints are comprised of intricate systems of cartilage, bone, muscle, and connective tissue that work together to stabilize the joint and allow for free movement. These structures are a critical component of the anatomy that allows for the vast majority of the mobility and flexibility that the musculoskeletal system offers. Unfortunately, their complex structure also means joints are very prone to degradation over time, whether from the wear and tear of use or specific disease processes. This degradation can ultimately precipitate chronic inflammation in the joints, which, if left untreated, will lead to pain, stiffness, swelling and negatively impact your quality of life.
Joint pain can range in severity from mild to severe and can be acute or chronic. Mild acute joint pain will generally resolve itself in time or with minor interventions like rest, ice, and non-opioid pain medications. However, chronic joint pain can last for months or years and will only get worse if you do not take steps to prevent and treat it. We have compiled this list of some of the most common sources of joint pain to help those suffering from this potentially debilitating condition determine what is causing their pain and understand their options for treatment.
Identifying the Cause of Your Joint Pain
Any injury or condition that degrades the soft tissue structures of a joint can ultimately lead to joint pain. As the cartilage thins and loses its ability to provide the cushioning and lubrication it does in a healthy joint, ultimately leading to painful bone-on-bone contact in the joint. There are a variety of factors that can contribute to joint pain, but the most common causes are the gradual wear-and-tear of the aging process, traumatic injury, and abnormal immune responses. Other common risk factors for joint pain include genetic predisposition, obesity, previous injury to a joint, and weak or underdeveloped muscles supporting a joint.
Some of the most common conditions that cause people to experience joint pain include:
By far the most common form of arthritis and, by extension, joint pain. Osteoarthritis describes the disappearance of cartilage as a result of inflammation caused by the wear and tear of the aging process. It affects millions of people a year and is most common in older people, but other risk factors include obesity, injury, repetitive overuse of a given joint, and smoking.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a specific type of arthritis that is actually caused by the body’s own immune system. In this condition, the immune system attacks the joints of the body, leading to progressive cartilage loss and pain, swelling, and stiffness as the joint degrades and advances to bone-on-bone contact.
Lupus is another autoimmune disorder that can cause joint pain, as the disease causes the immune system to take healthy tissues within the body, including the joints. It is estimated that over 95% of people with lupus will experience severe joint pain.
Gout is an incredibly painful form of arthritis that is caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. This excess uric acid leads to the formation of crystals in the joint space that causes pain so excruciating that it can wake a sufferer up from a dead sleep. Gout is sometimes referred to as “The Disease of Kings,” because flare-ups have been linked to a high-fat diet, alcohol, and other elements of a decadent, sedentary lifestyle.
Fibromyalgia is a complex, little understood chronic pain syndrome that leads to severe fatigue and chronic pain in the muscles and joints. Recurrent episodes can be triggered by fatigue, stress, or environmental factors and can last for days or weeks. There is no known cure for fibromyalgia, but many treatments that can help sufferers control symptoms and prevent a recurrence.
How to Find Relief from Joint Pain
If you are experiencing joint pain that does not go away on its own or with minor home-based interventions, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Untreated joint pain has the potential to be absolutely debilitating. Some of the treatments that can be used to reduce or eliminate joint pain include:
- Physical therapy, which is a combination of stretching, strengthening and cardiovascular exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles around the affected joint. This stabilization can help relieve pain and secure the joint.
- A TENS unit, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, uses low-dose electrical currents, delivered through pads (electrodes) placed directly on the skin above the site of injury, to stimulate nerves and eliminate the sensation of pain by confusing the nerves that relay it.
- Certain topical creams, particularly those that contain capsaicin, menthol or salicylates, can help provide short-term but immediate relief for arthritis pain.
- Bracing can help relieve pain in arthritic joints by removing some of the bone-on-bone pressure in the joint space.
- Medications like opioids, non-opioid pain medication, or steroids
- A special injection containing hyaluronate, a natural substance that is found in the synovial fluid that lubricates joints. Replacing this fluid through a Hyalgan injection can help reduce pain and inflammation in an arthritic joint.
- PRP therapy uses the patient’s own blood, which has been refined to contain a high concentration of cells called platelets. Platelets contain substances called growth factors that reduce pain and inflammation and enhance the body’s ability to heal itself. Once prepared, the PRP solution is injected into the joint under imaging guidance to promote healing and drive recovery.
- Other pain management procedures like radiofrequency ablations and nerve blocks, which control pain by preventing pain signals from being relayed away from a joint to the brain.