When your joints work well, you may hardly think about them. You unscrew the lid from a jar, walk down a flight of stairs, or reach to take a book down from a high shelf without giving it a second thought.
But when you have joint pain, just about any activity that has you moving that joint can grab your attention. And joint pain is common. Joints are places where two bones meet, and they contain cartilage, ligaments, tendons, fibrous linings and muscle. So, there’s a lot that could go wrong.
Here’s what could be causing your joint pain
There are many factors that could be behind your joint pain, explained Richard Williams, MD, a Banner Health orthopedic surgeon in Northern Colorado. You could have joint pain caused by:
- Arthritis. Different types of arthritis can cause pain in various joints, including osteoarthritis; inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, and scleroderma; post-traumatic arthritis; gout or pseudogout; and septic arthritis.
- Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is often confused with arthritis but it’s a different disorder that often causes fatigue along with joint pain.
- Thyroid conditions. Uncontrolled thyroid problems can cause joint pain and muscle weakness.
- Meniscus tears. A sudden injury or long-term wear and tear can cause meniscus injuries. They usually cause pain on one side of the knee.
- Fractures and dislocations. These usually stem from an injury, and you’ll typically see swelling.
- Sprains and strains. These cause joint pain when a ligament or tendon is stressed but not torn.
- Ligament tears. Ligament tears are usually caused by an injury and can lead to instability in the joint.
- Tendon tears. Tendon tears usually happen over time. The rotator cuff is a tendon that’s commonly torn.
- Soft-tissue tears. These injuries often affect the hip and shoulder.
- Tendinitis. Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon and often stems from overuse.
- Bursitis. Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa, which is a buffer in your joint.
- Bone contusions. Bone contusions, or swelling and bruising, usually result from trauma.
- Lyme disease. This disease is spread by ticks and is common in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
- Bone tumors. These tumors can be benign or cancerous. They are a very rare cause of joint pain.
Here’s how you can prevent joint pain
It’s not always possible to prevent joint pain. Sometimes, an injury happens unexpectedly. And sometimes, you develop a condition or disease that harms your joints. But you can take steps to keep your joints as pain-free as possible.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is critical. “Countless studies have demonstrated the negative effects of weight on joints. If you are carrying more weight than is healthy, you are putting increased stress and strain on the cartilage, muscles and tendons. That can lead to joint pain,” Dr. Williams said.
Go easy on your joints. High-impact activities like running and jumping are hard on your back, hips, knees and ankles. Dr. Williams said gentler activities like biking, swimming and elliptical training could help your joints last a lifetime.
If you have a joint that’s bothering you, try avoiding activities that trigger pain for a while. That can give your joint a chance to heal.
Stretching and strengthening exercises can help keep your joint from stiffening up and can improve stability. Plus, stronger muscles can help absorb some of the stress and strain that’s placed on a joint.
Here’s what to do to try to ease joint pain
If you have joint pain, a lot of different treatments can help. Dr. Williams recommends:
- Medications that can ease pain, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and medications that can both relieve pain and reduce inflammation, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), naproxen (Naprosyn or Aleve), meloxicam (Mobic) or celecoxib (Celebrex).
- Ointments that have lidocaine or another numbing agent can decrease the pain in a joint for a short time.
- RICE (Rest, ice, compression and elevation) can decrease inflammation and swelling after an injury. It can also be helpful before or after activities that cause joint swelling and discomfort.
- Bracing can rest your joint, control swelling, protect the injured area and add stability.
Here’s when you should see your doctor for joint pain
Of course, you can’t always treat your joint pain on your own. Here’s when and how a health care professional can help:
- If you’ve injured yourself suddenly. If you hurt a joint playing a sport or exercising, you fall, or you’re in an accident seek help as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence with some injuries. Certain fractures, dislocations, meniscus tears, ligament tears and tendon tears do better when they are fixed sooner rather than later,” Dr. Williams said.
- If you don’t know what’s causing your pain or it’s increasing gradually. In these cases, as long as your pain isn’t severe, you can try treating it on your own for a couple of weeks. If you don’t see any improvement, talk to your doctor.
How your doctor can treat your joint pain
Depending on what’s causing your joint pain, your doctor may recommend:
- Physical therapy.
- Injections of cortisone, hyaluronic acid, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) or stem cells. However, keep in mind, that some of these treatments are not covered by insurance. Dr. Williams also points out that PRP and stem cells won’t make an arthritic joint normal despite what you may hear from advertising.
- Prescribed medications to treat pain and swelling. Prescription-strength pain relievers can help. However, Dr. Williams cautioned that narcotics should only be used for fractures and post-surgery pain management.
- Custom braces.
- Surgery, if conservative treatments aren’t controlling your joint pain.
It’s important to keep in mind that some parts of your joints, such as ligaments and cartilage, don’t have good blood supply, so they don’t heal well. “Symptoms can improve, but the tissue does not heal in the same way other tissues do when they are injured,” Dr. Williams said.
The bottom line
Taking good care of your joints, treating some joint pain at home and seeking expert care when needed can help keep your joint pain under control. If you would like to connect with a health care provider to evaluate and treat your joint pain, Banner Health can help.
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