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What causes joint swelling? 28 possible conditions

What Is Joint Swelling?

Joints are the structures that connect two or more bones in your body. They are found in the hips, the knees, the hands, and many other parts of the body.

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.

Arthritis: A Common Cause of Joint Swelling

One of the most frequent causes of joint swelling is arthritis. Arthritis has many different forms. The most common ones include:


According to the United States National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), osteoarthritis is the most common disorder of the joints. (NCBI, 2011)

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.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

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.

Psoriatic Arthritis

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)

Septic Arthritis

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)

Other Causes of Joint Swelling

Arthritis is not the only possible explanation for joint swelling. Other causes include:

  • bone fracture
  • torn ligament
  • torn tendon
  • ankylosing spondylitis (a long-term disease that leads to joint inflammation)
  • systemic lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disorder that leads to inflammation and joint pain)

When Should You Contact Your Doctor?

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

How is Joint Swelling Diagnosed?

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.

Treating Joint Swelling

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.

Is There Any Way to Prevent 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.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, causes inflammation of the joints in the body. Explore our doctor-reviewed health articles and learn more about osteoarthritis.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Since a dislocation means your bone is no longer where it should be, you should treat it as an emergency and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

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A fracture is a broken bone that typically occurs when a bone is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin.

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Arthritis is inflammation of the joints (where bones meet) in one or more areas of the body. This condition is most commonly seen in adults, but it can also develop in children and teens.

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Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae, the fluid-filled sacs that help reduce friction where tendons, skin, and muscle tissues meet bones. Inflammation can cause discomfort and limit range of motion.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovia, the membranes lining the joints.

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Infectious (Septic) Arthritis

Infectious arthritis occurs when an infection that usually begins in another area of the body due to surgery, open wounds, or injections spreads to a joint or the fluid surrounding the joint (synovial fluid).

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Tendon Sheath Inflammation (Tenosynovitis)

Tendons are covered by a protective sheath called synovium, which keeps tendons lubricated. Injury to this area can disrupt this function, causing inflammation.

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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease and the most common type of lupus. One of its common symptoms is a rash on the cheeks and nose called a "butterfly rash."

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Sjogren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects the glands that help the body create moisture in the eyes and mouth. Women are most likely to be affected.

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Gout Overview

Gout is a type of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the blood. When the concentration of uric acid gets too high, sharp urate crystals form and collect in the joints, causing swelling and intense pain.

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Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is an infectious condition transmitted via tick bite. A "bull's eye" rash at the site of the bite is an early symptom of this disease.

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Hemophilia A

Hemophilia A (factor VIII deficiency) is the most common form of the blood clotting disorder hemophilia. It can cause prolonged bleeding, tight joints, and unexplained bruising.

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Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is a type of arthritis that occurs in people with psoriasis. Psoriasis is a skin disease where itchy, scaly red patches appear on the skin and scalp. According to The National Psoriasi...

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Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is a form of chronic arthritis that affects children. It is a long-term autoimmune condition characterized by stiffness and swelling in the joints. Most cases of JRA are mild.

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Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that primarily affects your spine. It causes severe inflammation of the vertebrae that might eventually lead to chronic pain and disability.

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Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is a possible and potentially serious complication of strep throat. It tends to occur in children between five and 15 years old. Rash is one possible sign of this condition.

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Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow often occurs when a specific muscle in the forearm, the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle, is damaged. The ECRB helps raise the wrist.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.