Joint pain is one of the most common causes of chronic pain, with an estimated one in four adults suffering from joint pain due to arthritis alone. The average number of joints in the human body is somewhere between 200 and 400, with most people clocking in around 360. With so many moving connections, the causes of joint pain are nearly innumerable. Here are the 12 most common joint pain causes (and how to treat them!).
What causes joint pain?
There are three main structural classes of joints in the body: fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial.
Fibrous and cartilaginous joints are barely moveable, with no lubricating fluids. Intervertebral discs, for example, are a type of cartilaginous joint. Gomphoses are an example of a fibrous joint, helping to bind your teeth to the bony sockets of the jaw.
With so many moving parts, synovial joints are most susceptible to pain and injury. They include your knees and hips and other joints that commonly feel pain. Let’s look at their different types in more detail.
Types of synovial joints
There are six types of synovial joints.
- Hinge: The hinge joint allows for flexion and extension but no rotation or circular movement. The elbow is an example of this type of joint. Think of this as the hinge of a door that only allows the door to open and close.
- Pivot: A pivot joint allows movement on the long axis of a bone. The radio-ulnar joint below the elbow is an example of this joint, allowing us to twist the forearm.
- Ball-and-socket: Possibly the most familiar type of joint, a ball-and-socket joint is when the rounded, ball-shaped end of a bone nestles into a receiving (socket) end. The shoulder and the hip are two examples of a ball-and-socket joint.
- Ellipsoid: The ellipsoid joint is very similar to a ball and socket joint but does not allow full rotation. The wrist joint (the radiocarpal joint) is an ellipsoid joint.
- Saddle: Again, this joint is similar to both the ball-and-socket-joint and ellipsoid joint. The saddle shape of the joint that gives it its name does not allow for full rotation but still offers better mobility along many planes. The joint of the thumb is a saddle joint.
- Plane: This joint is simple – just two flat surfaces that glide along each other. The joint between the clavicle and acromion process of the scapula (the shoulder blade) is an example of this type of joint.
The movement of each of these joints is helped by synovial fluid within the joint. This allows the bones of each joint to glide against the other. Each joint also has connective tissues and ligaments that stabilize them as they move.
12 of the most common joint pain causes
As noted, the most common areas for joint pain are in the synovial joints. The joints that feel pain most often include:
Joint pain causes can vary depending on a variety of factors. Tracking your symptoms at the first sign of pain can help your doctor obtain a more accurate diagnosis. Twelve of the most common joint pain causes include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Trauma and injuries
- Lyme disease
- Advanced cancer
- Psoriatic arthritis
Let’s look at these joint pain causes in more detail.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is inflammation that occurs in the bones and the joints.
Often referred to as a “wear-and-tear” injury, this is most common in older adults as joints begin to wear out. Over time, cartilage that protects the joints and synovial fluid that lubricates it begins to wear out, causing bones to rub together.
The resulting inflammation can be very painful, especially after periods of activity that follow rest.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to turn on itself, attacking the joints of the body and causing inflammation.
The most common joints affected are in the hands and feet. Rheumatoid arthritis is visible in later-stage sufferers who may experience distorted fingers and toes joints. Cold joints generally experience the most pain.
Typically classified as another form of arthritis, gout occurs when a build up of uric acid occurs. This forms crystals that impede movement in the joints.
The most commonly affected joints are the big toe and the knee. Movement may be nearly impossible as joints swell.
Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae, the sac filled with fluid that cushions your joints. The fluid becomes inflamed as a result of injury or overuse. This occurs most often in the shoulder, hip, and elbow.
If you have bursitis, exercise is nearly impossible, as bursitis pain is generally worse with movement.
When tendons that protect the joints become overstretched or otherwise injured, the resulting inflammation is classified as tendinitis.
These injuries are typically very challenging to heal, as tendons can take six months or more to repair themselves. The Achilles tendon, the knees, elbows, and shoulder are most susceptible to tendinitis.
Trauma and injuries
For athletic, younger people who have no underlying conditions, trauma and injury are the main cause of joint pain.
This category is filled with athletes who regularly exercise as well as weekend warriors who overdo it. You may also sustain injuries during a fall, car accident, or other traumatic event.
A widespread chronic pain condition, fibromyalgia is challenging to treat and diagnose. Further, it may cause chronic joint pain for many sufferers.
Still largely misunderstood, joint pain due to fibromyalgia is often felt symmetrically. This means that the joints that ache will be mirrored on each side of the body. This type of joint pain is unpredictable but does seem to improve with gentle, regular exercise (and worsen without it).
The symptoms of Lyme disease can vary from person to person, with sufferers experiencing symptom-free periods followed by days or weeks of joint pain, nausea, and fatigue.
This condition can be challenging to diagnose, as symptoms come and go and may not be consistent.
Lupus affects nearly two million people in the U.S. A chronic disease of the immune system, this disease attacks every part of the body, mistaking healthy tissue for harmful, invasive bacteria.
Pain in the joints is also often accompanied by:
- Extreme fatigue
- Hair loss and changes
- A trademark butterfly-shaped rash that spreads over the nose and cheeks
The deterioration of bone that is a hallmark of osteoporosis can also cause pain in the joints. It can lead to damage and inflammation in ligaments and tendons as well.
Safe, consistent weight-bearing exercise seems to improve pain and prevent further bone loss.
Very rarely, one of the causes of joint pain is an advanced form of bone cancer. Deep bone pain and weakness in the arms and legs generally accompany this type of joint pain.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, along with urinary or bowel incontinence, it is important to immediately contact your doctor.
Psoriasis is a painful, itchy autoimmune skin condition that eventually turns into psoriatic arthritis in approximately 30% of patients who suffer from it.
The result is swollen, stiff, and aching joints. It most often affects joints of the:
- Fingers and toes, typically those closest to the nail
- Lower back
Psoriatic arthritis can occur either on both sides of the body or one at a time.
Getting started with joint pain management
If you suffer from joint pain, there are treatments that can help. Much will depend on the underlying cause of your joint pain. This is why tracking symptoms – including when pain occurs, the level of your activity, and dietary changes – is so important.
By using these tracked symptoms, you and your doctor will be able to better diagnose your condition and identify triggers that could be leading to pain.
For example, some patients with joint pain find that gentle exercise can actually decrease pain as you build muscle to support the joint. However, in the case of joint pain caused by tendinitis and bursitis, even mild exercise could cause a painful flare-up. Knowing your diagnosis beforehand is your first and most important step.
Once you have a diagnosis, and your doctor has cleared you to do so, you can try some of the following joint pain treatments.
While some types of joint pain (like those caused by autoimmune disorders) are harder to diagnose and cannot necessarily be traced to any lifestyle factors, other types of joint pain are caused or exacerbated by certain choices we make.
The following increases your chances of joint pain (and the level of pain itself).
- Weight: The more weight your joints have to support, the higher your chances for developing joint pain
- Smoking: Smoking decreases circulation throughout the body and increases the risk of certain types of joint pain (including osteoporosis, as smoking contributes to bone loss)
- Stress: Stress causes inflammation in the body, among other medical issues, that affects the joints
- Physical labor or repetitive motion: The more often you work the same joint, the faster it will wear out
Foods that cause joint pain
Absent underlying medial conditions, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that some foods can actually lead to joint pain.
A steady diet of sugar and refined white flours has been linked to a variety of medical conditions that’s caused by spikes in the blood sugar. These inflammatory spikes release cytokines, a chemical that is linked to not only inflammation in the body but also diabetes and depression.
Other foods that may cause painful, system-wide inflammation include:
- Fried food
- Red meat
Generally, the best diet for joint pain follows Michael Pollan’s three simple rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Whole foods that are plant-based (mostly) and eaten in healthy quantities can improve overall health and keep your body, including your joints, strong.
When it comes to joint pain caused by arthritis, you actually can predict the weather.
A 2007 study from Tufts University found a measurable increase in arthritis pain with every ten-degree drop in the temperature. Sensitive people may also find an increase in pain due to changes in barometric pressure.
Are there joint pain treatments that help?
The best joint pain remedies include a mixture of at-home preventative treatments, gentle, targeted exercises, and medical interventions when needed. As always, talk to your doctor before attempting any of these.
At-home treatments include remedies that prevent joint pain and also help you manage painful flare-ups.
These include things such as:
- Using protective braces and wraps during exercise
- Icing to reduce inflammation
- Take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as directed by your doctor
- Applying topical pain relievers such as capsaicin and methyl salicylate
Exercises for joint pain
Following an exercise regimen that helps you lose or manage your weight while strengthening and lengthening can help support the muscles and tendons around your joint.
Your doctor and physical therapist can work together to design exercises to prevent or minimize joint pain.
Medication for joint pain
When home remedies and over-the-counter medications are not effective, patients may find relief with prescription medications. These can include colchicine (Indocin), meloxicam (Mobic), and celecoxib (Celebrex). It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions when taking these, as serious side effects can occur with long-term (or high-dose) use.
Oral steroids like prednisone can be helpful in the short-term. In rare cases, and for pain that is unresponsive or short-lived, opioids may help. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any prescription medications to see which might be best for managing your pain.
This outpatient procedure uses injections to reduce both inflammation and joint pain. Injected medications can be cortisone, steroids, or synthetic hyuralonic acid that regenerates synovial fluid.
Patients may see pain relief that lasts for several months, with injections repeated no more than three times annually.
Joint replacement surgery
In some cases, the joint itself is so damaged that joint replacement surgery is the only good option. Hip replacement (and knee replacement) have become common as we begin to live longer. These large joints take a beating over our lifetimes, and replacements can last for 30 years (or more).
In addition to the above, complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care can all go a long way to treat and prevent painful joints. Some patients also find lasting and soothing relief using essential oils for arthritis.
Pain specialists take a holistic approach to treating your joint pain with a combination of therapies designed to diagnose the cause of joint pain, treat symptoms, and prevent future pain.
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