Joints are surrounded and cushioned by soft tissues. Swelling occurs when fluid accumulates in these tissues. Joint pain, stiffness, or both may accompany the swelling. You may also notice that the joint appears bigger than normal, or that its shape is somewhat irregular.
While joint swelling can be a symptom of a chronic condition, it can also be a sign of an injury that requires medical attention.
One of the most frequent causes of joint swelling is arthritis. Arthritis has many different forms. The most common ones include:
Osteoarthritis is caused by the natural destruction of joint cartilage over time. It can result in joint swelling when the cartilage surrounding a joint wears away and the bones rub up against each other.
This inflammatory form of arthritis is also an autoimmune disease. With this type of disease, the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. In RA, the body attacks the membranes that line the joints, causing fluid buildup and swelling in the joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 1.3 million people in America have this condition, which can damage a joint’s tendons and ligaments, as well as cartilage. (Arthritis Foundation)
This type of arthritis is associated with a buildup of uric acid in the joints, which leads to joint swelling and pain. It can be chronic or acute. Uric acid is a byproduct created when the body breaks down certain substances in food. It normally dissolves in the blood and is removed from the body through urination.
This occurs together with the skin condition psoriasis. According to the UCLA Health System, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed to reduce pain and inflammation. However, more severe cases may require treatment with more potent anti-rheumatic drugs. (UCLA Health System, 2009)
If your joint swelling is a result of an infection caused by a bacteria or a fungus, it is called septic arthritis. This condition may be chronic or acute.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the bacteria Staphylococcus and Streptococcus cause most acute cases of septic arthritis. Typically, chronic cases are a result of infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Candida albicans. However, the chronic condition is rare. (NIH, 2011)
Arthritis is not the only possible explanation for joint swelling. Other causes include:
Joint swelling should be checked out by a doctor if:
- it occurred after an injury
- your joints are swollen and you are not sure what could be causing the problem
- your body temperature is elevated
When you arrive at the doctor’s office, he or she may spend some time asking you about your medical history. Your doctor will also want to examine the joint or joints that are swollen.
In addition to a physical inspection, your doctor may ask some questions, such as:
- where the swelling is occurring
- if there is anything that seems to worsen the swelling
- If there is anything that seems to make the swelling better
- when the swelling started
- if the swelling is severe
- if you have any other symptoms along with the joint swelling
Your doctor may then order follow-up tests to determine the cause of your joint swelling. These may include blood tests or X-rays. He or she may also order a joint aspiration. In this test, a small amount of fluid will be drawn out of the affected joint with a needle, so it can be examined in a laboratory.
If your joint swelling occurred following an injury, some simple at-home treatments can help relieve your pain. You should apply ice to bring down the swelling, and elevate the joint, preferably to a point higher than your heart.
While home care can be effective at treating pain, you should still see your doctor to have any joint swelling examined and to discuss the proper course of treatment.
Treatment approaches for chronic arthritis or other conditions should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Your doctor can provide more information on at-home remedies to best to manage your joint swelling.
All joint swelling cannot be prevented. However, the condition can often be relieved or managed, depending on whether it was caused by injury or by a chronic condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Be sure to talk to your doctor about all of your treatment options and ways to manage your pain.