Medically reviewed by Misty Seidenburg
Joints are the areas of the body where our bones connect. They consist of bones and soft tissues that support and connect them: cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Our joints support the body and help us move. But joint damage caused by illness or injuries can make movement difficult and painful. Learn about the most common joint pain causes and ways to find relief.
Joint pain is a common condition that has several possible causes. It can occur in one or several joints. It can be a constant problem, or symptoms can come and go. People experience joint pain differently. It can feel like aching, burning, throbbing, shooting, or grating pain. Painful joints can also feel stiff or sore.
Joint pain can be more than a minor inconvenience. Severe joint pain can hinder movement, and make it difficult to do simple tasks like get dressed, walk, sit, or climb stairs. Joint pain is most often felt in the hands, feet, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and back. Here are some of the most common causes of joint pain.
Arthritis is not a single disease, but rather a range of more than 100 types of arthritis and arthritis-related conditions that affect the joints. As the leading cause of disability in the U.S. arthritis affects one in four adults.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most widespread form of arthritis, resulting from inflammation of the joint lining and deterioration of the connective tissues that hold the joint together. Known as the “wear-and-tear disease”, OA tends to affect joints in the hand, knees, hips, and spine.
Others forms of arthritis are caused by an overactive immune system. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune inflammatory forms of the disease, the body’s immune system attacks areas of the body it’s meant to protect. Joints in the hand and feet are typically the first affected, and they may feel tender, stiff, and swollen.
Bursitis is swelling of the small, fluid-filled sacs (bursa) that act as cushions around bones and another structures. Prolonged stress or pressure on specific parts of the body can cause bursae to become inflamed and painful. Depending on where the repetitive stress or injury occurs, bursitis can lead to shoulder joint pain, hip joint pain, and pain in elbow joints.
Shoulder joint pain can also be a sign of adhesive capsulitis, or frozen shoulder. With frozen shoulder, the capsule of connective tissue that encases the shoulder joint becomes thick and tight, impeding shoulder movement. While the cause of frozen shoulder is unknown, some risk factors have been identified including a previous should injury or surgery, and systemic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Big toe joint pain can be a symptom of gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis that causes periodic flare ups of joint pain and swelling. Gout is a cause of foot pain that develops when high levels of urate accumulate in the body.
Gradually, tiny, sharp, urate crystals begin to form around the joints, leading to pain and inflammation. Without treatment, gout attacks can become more frequent and spread to other joints in the body.
It’s important to note that big toe pain can also be a sign of a hallux valgus, commonly known as a bunion, a painful bony lump that forms where the big toe meets the foot. A proper diagnosis is necessary to determine the appropriate course of treatment.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can cause thumb joint pain and pain throughout the small joints of the hand and feet, among other symptoms. The body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues in someone with lupus, though we are not sure what causes this condition. The severity and frequency of lupus flares vary greatly from person to person. Lupus is generally managed with medication to treat pain, swelling, and lower the risk of flares.
A sprain is an overstretched or torn ligament around a joint. Falling, twisting, or direct contact to the body can cause a sprain. It’s possible to hear a “pop” when the injury happens and experience swelling and bruising along with joint pain. The ankles and wrists are often affected.
A strain is an overstretched or torn ligament or muscle. Strains can cause joint pain in the back, knees, and ankles, along with swelling and muscle spasms near the injury. Sprains and strains can occur from sudden, direct trauma to the body, or from develop over time from overuse.
Tendinitis is irritation and/or swelling of the tendons, the thick, flexible cords of tissue that attach muscle to bone. Often caused by repetitive movements and sports injuries, tendinitis typically affects the hands, wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles. Tenderness, inflammation, and pain in and around the joint are associated with tendonitis.
Widespread joint pain throughout the body has several potential causes. Pain in all of the joints can be linked to infection or autoimmune disease, and it can be a complication of other health conditions. The flu, long COVID, chronic fatigue syndrome, gout, lupus, and arthritis are just a few conditions that may cause systemic joint pain.
To effectively manage or treat joint pain, we need to know the underlying cause. Healthcare professionals have a wide range of tools at their disposal to diagnose joint pain.
It’s always wise to see a healthcare provider for sudden joint pain, especially when pain occurs in a different joint, feels differently, or develops along with new symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention if joint pain is accompanied by fever, numbness, or burning, significant swelling, or if the joint feels hot to the touch.
Treatment for joint pain depends on the diagnosis. Surgery may be recommended for patients with certain musculoskeletal injuries or advanced forms of arthritis that don’t respond well to less-invasive treatments. For others, conservative, nonsurgical methods offer relief from joint pain.
Conservative treatments for joint pain include:
Self-care involves simple treatments you can do at home: rest, supportive wraps, topical pain relievers and heat or ice. Eating a nutritious diet and regular aerobic and strengthening exercise are always good for joint health.
Medications can help with joint pain. Depending on the diagnosis, oral or topical painkillers, steroid injections, and hyaluronic injections can relieve joint pain and inflammation. Patients with autoimmune disease may benefit from prescription medications that alter the body’s immune system response to reduce symptoms.
If you are interested in managing joint pain without medication, you might consider complementary therapies like Tai Chi, yoga, acupuncture, and massage therapy. One study reviewed the benefits of these methods for patients with osteoarthritis, a leading cause of joint pain.
According to the available evidence, “positive short-term (6 months or less) effects in the form of reduced pain and improved self-reported physical functioning were found for all 4 treatments.” Always check with your healthcare provider to make sure alternative therapies are safe for your condition.
The CDC recommends nonpharmacologic treatments, including physical therapy, when appropriate for patients with for chronic pain. Physical therapy is a noninvasive method widely-used to manage, treat, and prevent joint pain for patients of all ages.
The first step in physical therapy for joint pain is an initial evaluation. During this first session, the physical therapist asks about your health history and your symptoms and performs a physical exam and movements to assess your pain and understand how it impacts your mobility, function, and overall quality of life.
Once the evaluation is complete, they create a custom physical therapy treatment program to improve your symptoms and help you meet your goals—whether that is recovering from an injury or staying active and independent well into the golden years.
Joint pain physical therapy may include:
Some patients benefit from physical therapy alone, while others use it in conjunction with medication and complementary therapies. Speak with your healthcare provider and physical therapist to determine the most effective course of care for your joint pain. Find a physical therapy clinic near you.