Updated 11 February 2013

Joint pain

Pain in the joints, known as arthralgia, is experienced by most people at some point in their life. The type of pain varies and can be due to a number of factors.

Pain in the joints, known as arthralgia, is experienced by most people at some point in their life. The type of pain varies and can be due to a number of factors. It can be acute pain, pain due to an injury, or chronic pain.

Certain types of joint pain can be prevented (often through diet or exercise), whereas some cannot.

  • Unusual activity or overuse, including strains and sprains;
  • Common infectious diseases such as colds and flu;
  • Injury and trauma, such as fractures and whiplash;
  • Athletic injuries, such as tennis elbow, golfer elbow and rotator cuff injury;
  • Arthritis. This term is used to describe more than 100 diseases that cause pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints. There are different types of arthritis:
    • Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, can affect any joint. It's characterised by the progressive breakdown of joint cartilage and bone at the margins of the joint;
    • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease characterised by inflammation of the lining of small joints. If untreated, it can lead to long-term joint damage;
    • Juvenile arthritis and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis: these affect children;
    • Ankylosing spondylitis: this type causes pain and stiffness in the spine, although other joints can also be affected too;
    • Gout: characterised by a build-up of excessive uric acid, which forms crystals that deposit in the joints and cause inflammation. Symptoms include sudden and severe pain and tenderness, redness, warmth and swelling in some joints. It usually affects one joint at a time, often the big toe. It's common in men, but affects many women too.
    • Pseudogout: this mimics gout, but primarily affects the knee.
    • Psoriatic arthritis: this is a common condition which includes the skin disease psoriasis; and
    • Reiter's syndrome, a form of infectious arthritis.
  • Tendinitis. Inflammation, irritation and swelling of a tendon (the fibrous structure that connects muscle to bone) can be caused by injury, overuse or age;
  • Bursitis: inflammation of the fluid-filled sac (bursa) that lies between a tendon and skin or between a tendon and bone can be caused by chronic overuse, trauma, rheumatoid arthritis, gout or infection;
  • TMJ disorder. This condition involves pain where the lower jaw connects with the skull, caused by genetics, trauma, arthritis or other factors;
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition can cause wrist pain and occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist;
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): an autoimmune disease which causes inflammation of the connective tissue, in particular membranes around joints;
  • Fibromyalgia: a chronic disorder which causes diffuse muscle ache, stiffness and fatigue. Patients often have tender spots in specific areas on their body in places such as the neck, shoulders, back, hips, arms and legs that hurt when pressure is applied;
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome: pain in multiple joints without swelling or redness is a common symptom;
  • Sjogren's syndrome: an autoimmune disorder often associated with rheumatoid arthritis and other rheumatic conditions, and which can cause debilitating joint pain;
  • Lyme disease: joint pain is common in early and late stages of this infectious tick-borne condition;
  • Spinal stenosis: this narrowing of the passage for the spinal cord can cause pain in the back, neck, shoulders, legs and other joints;
  • Osteoporosis: this common bone disorder is usually painless in early stages, but may cause severe joint or back pain in late stages because of fractures;
  • Cancer: bone tumours, leukaemia and other cancers can cause joint pain due to metastasis, or spreading of the cancer into the joint;
  • Sickle cell anaemia. A hereditary blood disease marked by pain in the joints, bones and elsewhere;
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica: pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulder and hips typify this condition;
  • Sarcoidosis: this inflammatory disease can affect the joints and other body parts;
  • Complex regional pain syndrome: this chronic condition usually affects the arms or legs;
  • Infection of a joint: for example, a joint may be infected during surgery such as arthroplasty;
  • Osteomyelitis: acute or chronic bone infection is usually caused by bacteria;
  • Meningitis: inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, meningitis is usually caused by infection. It can cause neck pain or stiffness;
  • Encephalitis: inflammation of the brain. Symptoms can include stiffness or pain in the back or neck;
  • Costochondritis: inflammation of the cartilage connecting the ribs and sternum (breastbone), costochondritis is one of the more common causes of noncardiac chest pain; or
  • Scleroderma: this chronic disease can cause thickening, hardening or tightening of the skin, blood vessels and internal organs.

  • Joint pain is accompanied by fever, weight loss or malaise (a general feeling of discomfort, illness or lack of well-being); or
  • Joint pain is accompanied by a burning pain or paresthesia (sensation of tingling, pricking or numbness of the skin).

  • Getting regular exercise to keep joints mobile and strengthen muscles.
  • Improve posture.
  • Avoid activities that put excessive stress on the joints.
  • Lose excess weight, as it puts unnecessary strain on joints.
  • Using heat, cold and water treatments - heat relaxes the muscle and stimulates blood circulation, and cold numbs the affected area.
  • Getting enough sleep to restore energy and rest joints.
  • Relaxing may reverse some of the effects of stress on the body, reducing pain.
  • Physical therapy and manipulation therapy - works especially well in arthritic patients.
  • Walking aids, such as canes or walkers relieve stress on certain joints.
  • Occupational therapy includes task simplification, energy conservation and instruction in adaptive equipment, for conditions ranging from acute trauma to chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Braces and splints assist in unloading weights to certain joints, including knees.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy is primarily used on those with chronic sources of pain ranging from arthritis to fibromyalgia.

  • Analgesics
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Biologic response modifiers (BRMs)
  • Antidepressants
  • Topical pain relievers
  • Opioids
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Injection therapy.


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