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Joint pain

Joint problems from an injury or disease can cause pain and impact your mobility. We look at the causes of joint pain and treatments.

A patient with joint pain holds their hip in discomfort
The joint is an area of the body where two or more bones meet. Joints are also commonly called an articulation. The joints connect your bones to one another, providing you with support and the ability to move.

The structure of a joint consists of bone and connective tissue, such as ligaments, cartilage and tendon. Each element is there to perform a specific task:

  •  Ligaments give the joint its stability by holding it together.
  •  Cartilage is the padding found at the end of the bones.
  • Tendons attach the muscles to the bones.

Problems in a joint, whether due to injury or disease, can affect your range of movement and cause varying degrees of pain. Performing certain movements or activities, such as walking or exercise, may increase the amount of pain that you are feeling. This is because you are putting pressure on a particular joint that may be damaged or diseased.

Chronic pain in the joints can have a profound effect upon your range of movement, which in turn can have a lasting detrimental impact upon your quality life.

Muscle and joint pain are extremely common problems and there are also many different causes. Here, we will look at the some of the most common causes, symptoms and treatments available to you if you are experiencing any pain in the joints.

At different times in your life, you may have experienced:

  • Hip joint pain, commonly felt around the pelvic region and the side of the leg. 
  •  Knee joint pain, felt when walking or running.     
  • Shoulder joint pain, felt when carrying or lifting something.    
  • Back pain, can be felt when bending down.     
  • Elbow joint pain, commonly felt during some sporting activities, such as tennis.       
  • Ankle joint pain, felt when walking or running.      
  • Big toe joint pain, can be particularly painful when running. ·      
  • Hand joint pain, including wrist joint pain, thumb joint pain and finger joint pain.

The type of joint pain you are experiencing can be a good indicator to your consultant of the potential causes. Five of the most common causes of joint pain are: ·      

  •  Injury: Trauma to a joint can damage the ligaments, muscles, tendons or cartilage in and around it. While a joint injury can result from an unexpected fall, trip or impact, it can also be caused by overuse, overstretching or lifting excess weight without adequate preparation. 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: A long-term, inflammatory joint disease that causes pain, stiffness and swelling in your joints. Arthritis can affect the whole body, although it is most commonly seen in the hands, feet and wrists. ·      
  • Osteoarthritis: This causes the cartilage at the end of your bones to break down, which then leads to the bones in the joint rubbing together. It is particularly common in the joints of the hips, knees and hands. 
  • Bursitis: Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that cushion your joints from shock and impact. Inflammation of a bursa is known as bursitis and can cause pain and swelling in your joints. While bursitis will often resolve itself naturally after a couple of weeks, more severe or long-lasting cases may require treatment.  
  • Gout: An inflammatory form of arthritis caused by excess uric acid in your bloodstream. It causes hot, swollen and painful joints. On most occasions the body will have healed itself naturally and the pain disappears. However, it is always advisable to seek the advice of a medical professional if your joint pain is long term, severe or impacting on the quality of your life.

Joint pain can vary in intensity and scope, from dull and infrequent to severe and debilitating. While mild, short-term joint pain is more easily managed than serious long-term pain, the quality of your life can be affected significantly regardless.

You may have pain in one joint or in many joints, depending on what is causing it. The most typical joints where you are most like to experience pain include: 

  • Knee: such as a knee injury, which may reduce the range of motion in your leg.
  • Shoulder: This is commonly called a frozen shoulder. Shoulder problems can be the result of damage to the rotator cuff tendons or a rotator cuff tear. Other problems may involve the shoulder blade. 
  • Hip: This is may be called sacroiliac joint pain, SI joint pain or sacroiliac joint dysfunction. Hip pain can result in a reduced range of motion in the joint.
  • Spine: This may be called facet joint pain when referring to the vertebrae of the spine. Problems associated with back pain include ankylosing spondylitis, which is a type of arthritis in the spine. ·
  • Extremities: such as hands and feet. A common source of pain in the foot is the hallux rigidus, which is characterised by a stiffness in the big toe. However, it is possible to experience joint pain all over your body.

The treatment that will be best for your joint pain will depend on the cause, location, duration and severity of the pain.

For pain caused by an injury or bursitis, treatment may involve:

  • Ice: A cold pack on the affected joint may help to reduce swelling and pain. 
  • Medication: Painkillers, particularly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help to give some joint pain relief and reduce any inflammation in the joint.        
  • Physiotherapy: Your consultant may recommend that you see a physiotherapist for help. If your joint pain has been caused by overuse or poor function, then the physiotherapist will be able to help show you alternative ways to carry out certain tasks in order to lower the risk of experiencing joint pain again.   
  • Surgery: For certain injuries, surgery may be required to correctly restore function and remove or reduce pain. If your bursitis is caused by an infection in the bursa, a surgical procedure may be required to drain the bursa. For pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or gout, your consultant may initially advise a painkiller such as paracetamol and codeine or an anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen.

Additional options include steroid tablets or injections, biological treatments and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Your Consultant will carefully assess these medications to see whether they are appropriate for you.

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