Joints are the structures that connect two or more bones in
your body. They’re found in your feet, ankles, knees, hips, arms, and many
other parts of your body.
Joints are surrounded and cushioned by soft tissues.
Swelling occurs when fluid accumulates in these tissues. Pain, stiffness, or
both may accompany joint swelling. You may also notice that the affected joint
appears bigger than normal or irregularly shaped.
Joint swelling can be a symptom of a chronic condition, such
as arthritis, or an injury that requires medical attention, such as a dislocation.
What causes joint swelling?
One of the most frequent causes of joint swelling is
arthritis. Some of the most common types of arthritis include:
Joint swelling can also result from other chronic conditions,
illnesses, or acute injuries.
According to the National
Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases,
osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It’s caused by the natural
deterioration of joint cartilage over time. When the cartilage surrounding your
joint wears away, the bones rub up against each other. This can result in joint
swelling, pain, and stiffness.
Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States have
rheumatoid arthritis (RA), reports the Arthritis
Foundation. This inflammatory form of arthritis is also an autoimmune disorder
— a type of condition in which your body attacks its own healthy tissues. If
you have RA, your immune system attacks the membranes that line your joints,
causing fluid to build up and your joints to swell. It can damage the
cartilage, tendons, and ligaments in your joints.
In gout, a buildup of uric acid in your joints leads to
joint swelling and pain. This painful condition can be acute or chronic. It
affects about 6 million men and 2 million women in the United States, or about
4 percent of American adults, reports the Arthritis
Uric acid is a byproduct that your body creates when
breaking down certain substances in food. It normally dissolves in your blood
and exits your body through urination. When it isn’t excreted properly, it can
build up in your joints, where it forms needle-like crystals. This causes the
symptoms of gout, including joint swelling.
Psoriatic arthritis is a type of arthritis that can
accompany the skin condition psoriasis. The Arthritis
Association estimates that about 30 percent of people with psoriasis have
psoriatic arthritis. It’s an autoimmune condition, in which your immune system
attacks healthy tissue in your joints and skin. This results in inflammation,
causing joint swelling, pain, and stiffness.
Joint swelling can also result from an infection in your
joints, caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. This type of joint swelling is
called septic arthritis. According to the Mayo
Clinic, the most common cause of septic arthritis is infection by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.
Septic arthritis can be chronic or acute. Chronic septic
arthritis is rare.
Many other types of arthritis can cause your joints to swell,
as can other health conditions. Examples include:
- injuries, such as bone fractures, dislocations, torn
ligaments, torn tendons
- ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic disease that causes
- systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), an autoimmune
disorder that causes inflammation
should you contact your doctor?
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience joint
- has no known cause following an injury
- is accompanied by a fever
is the cause of joint swelling diagnosed?
When you arrive at your doctor’s office, they will likely
start by asking you questions about your medical history and symptoms. For
example, they may ask:
- when your joint swelling started
- where the swelling has occurred
- how severe the swelling has been
- if anything seems to make the swelling better or worse
- if you have any other symptoms along with joint
Your doctor will also want to examine the affected joints.
They may order one or more tests to help determine the cause of the swelling. For
example, they may conduct:
- blood tests
- imaging tests, such as X-rays
- joint aspiration, a test in which your doctor
will used a needle to draw a small sample of fluid from the affected joint to
be analyzed in a laboratory
is joint swelling treated?
Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the
underlying cause of your symptoms.
If your joint swelling occurred following an injury, simple
at-home treatments can help relieve your symptoms. Apply ice or a cold pack,
wrapped in a cloth, to the affected joint for up to 10 minutes at a time to
bring down the swelling. Apply compression to the joint using an elastic
bandage or wrap. Elevate the joint when you’re resting, preferably to a point
higher than your heart. And consider taking over-the-counter pain medications
to relieve discomfort.
Your doctor may also encourage you to avoid moving or
putting weight on the injured joint for a period of time. Ask them how long you
should wait before you start using it again. While it’s important to give your
body time to heal, immobilizing the joint for too long can cause your muscle
strength and range of motion to deteriorate.
If you’re diagnosed with a chronic condition, such as
osteoarthritis or lupus, follow your doctor’s recommended treatment plan. They
may recommend medications, physical therapy, or other treatments to help relieve
your symptoms and maintain the health of your joint.
Ask your doctor for more information about your specific
diagnosis, treatment options, and long-term outlook.