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Woman suffering from joint pain

Joint pain: what you need to know

There are plenty of reasons why your joints could be giving you gyp – and it’s not always arthritis. Find out what could be behind those aches and pains

Written by Cheryl Freedman on March 9, 2019 Reviewed by Sammy Margo on March 11, 2019

Are your knees or hips constantly aching? If so, you’re not alone. More than 10 million people in the UK have arthritis or other conditions that affect the joints,1 which can restrict mobility and reduce your quality of life.

So, how can you work out what’s causing your joint pain, and – even better – help prevent it? Get the low-down with our guide.

What is joint pain?

A joint is a point on your body where your bones connect and allow for movement. Joint pain is pain experienced anywhere in or around your joints. There may also be stiffness and inflammation, with heat and swelling.

Joint pain can be felt as a sharp pain, burning sensation, tenderness or dull ache. Sometimes it disappears after a few weeks, but it can become chronic, lasting years.

There are numerous causes, but often it’s a sign of arthritis or injury.2

Which joints are most often affected?

Your knees are particularly vulnerable to damage as they support your bodyweight – for each pound you weigh, your knees endure four pounds of stress!3 Other susceptible joints include your hips, shoulders and ankles.

What causes joint pain?

The ends of your bones are separated by cartilage and connected by muscles, tendons and ligaments. Surrounding the joint is the synovial membrane, which produces fluid to help lubricate the joint. Between some joints is a small, fluid-filled sac called a bursa.4 Joint pain can occur if any of these parts become injured or inflamed.

Common conditions that trigger joint pain

One of the most common long-term joint condition is arthritis, which causes pain, stiffness and inflammation in the joints.5 The two main types of arthritis are:

  • osteoarthritis – this is ‘wear and tear’ arthritis, where the protective cartilage lining bones breaks down, causing pain and inflammation, and is more common in older people6

  • rheumatoid arthritis – this is an autoimmune condition, where the body mistakenly attacks the joints, causing pain, stiffness and swelling. It often feels worse in the mornings7

Gout is another type of arthritis that occurs when excess uric acid in the blood leads to tiny, painful crystals forming in and around the joints. This causes hot, swollen, red joints – especially the big toe.8

Other conditions that could cause painful joints include:

  • bursitis – when a bursa gets inflamed and causes sharp pain, mainly due to overuse, such as tennis elbow9

  • lupus – an autoimmune connective tissue condition, characterised by widespread inflammation. The two major symptoms are extreme tiredness, and joint and muscle pain10

  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – up to 30% of people with Crohn’s or colitis experience joint inflammation, too11

  • fibromyalgia – this chronic pain condition causes joint pain due to muscle stiffness, but without inflammation12

  • thyroid conditions – painful joints can sometimes be a symptom of an underactive thyroid, also called hypothyroidism13

  • psoriasis – psoriatic arthritis is when the symptoms of psoriasis also extend to the joints, causing pain and inflammation14

Other causes of joint pain

Apart from medical conditions, you could be experiencing joint pain due to injury or infection. A fall or sports injury can damage the cartilage, while broken bones can obviously harm your joints, too. A sprain occurs when a connecting ligament is torn or stretched.15 Sometimes, bleeding occurs in joint spaces after an accident, known as haemarthrosis.16 You can get an infection in your joints, when germs from a wound or virus in the blood travel into a joint. This triggers septic arthritis,17 with pain, inflammation and swelling. You might also experience a fever and fatigue. Seek immediate medical attention if you think you may have septic arthritis.

How to treat joint pain

Over-the-counter painkillers can help tackle moderate joint pain18 but if the pain is severe, or doesn’t subside after a few weeks, see your GP. They can refer you for corticosteroid injections19 or recommend surgery, if necessary.20 Certain supplements may help, too. Studies show taking omega-3 fish oils can reduce morning stiffness in those with rheumatoid arthritis,21 while a 1991 trial published in Clinical Therapeutics found a topical cream containing capsaicin, extracted from chillies, can ease joint pain.22 Researchers from the University of Miami also found that osteoarthritis patients taking ginger for six weeks experienced less pain.23

Finally, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to help tackle painful joints:

  1. thermotherapy – hot compresses can ease stiffness, while ice-packs soothe inflammation and pain24

  2. wearing supportive shoes – this puts less stress on ankles and knees25

  3. losing weight – if you’re overweight or obese, maintaining a healthy weight reduces pressure on hips and knees

  4. keeping active – exercise can improve flexibility and strengthen the muscles supporting joints26

  5. reducing inflammatory foods – sugar, alcohol, carbohydrates and too much vegetable oil/omega-6 oils may be a possible cause of inflammation, leading to conditions such as heart disease and arthritis27

See your GP if your joint pain is so bad that you’re struggling to perform normal daily activities, or if it becomes more severe.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

Sources

1. NHS. Arthriti 2. NHS. Joint pain 3. Arthritis Foundation. How fat affects arthritis 4. University of Rochester Medical Center. Anatomy of a joint

5. As Source 1

6. NHS. Osteoarthritis – overview 7. NHS. Rheumatoid arthritis

8. As Source 2

9. Medical News Today. What is the best thing for stiff joints? 10. Lupus UK. What is lupus? 11. Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. Arthritis and joint pain 12. Arthritis Foundation. Fibromyalgia symptoms 13. Mayo Clinic. Hypothyroidism: does it cause joint pain? 14. NHS. Psoriatic arthritis 15. NHS. Cartilage damage

16. As Source 2

17. NHS. Septic arthritis 18. Versus Arthritis. None-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs 19. NHS. Hydrocortisone injections 20. NICE. Referral for consideration of joint surgery 21. Versus Arthritis. Fish oils 22. Deal CL, et al. Treatment of arthritis with topical capsaicin: a double-blind trial 23. Altman RD, Marcussen KC. Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis 24. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ice packs vs warm compresses for pain 25. NICE. Osteoarthritis: care and management 26. Mayo Clinic. Exercise helps ease arthritis pain and stiffness 27. Patterson E, et al. Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids