What is arthralgia?

Arthralgia, or joint pain, is a common medical condition that causes discomfort, aching or soreness in one or more body joints. Joints are the connections between bones that allow movement, and when they become painful, it can significantly impact your quality of life.

Joint pain can vary in intensity, from mild and manageable to severe and debilitating. Various factors, including injury, inflammation, infections or underlying medical conditions such as arthritis, can cause it.

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Types of joint pain

Joint pain comes in various forms, and the specific type of joint pain you're experiencing may require a tailored treatment approach.

Joint pain symptoms

Joint pain symptoms can present in several ways, and the experience may vary depending on the underlying cause. If you're experiencing persistent joint pain or any associated symptoms, you should first be evaluated by your primary care physician for initial testing, which may include an X-ray. They may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon for a more detailed evaluation based on their examination and the type of injury. Common signs and symptoms of joint pain include:

  • Pain: Joint pain is often the most prominent symptom, ranging from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating pain.
  • Stiffness: Affected joints may feel rigid and challenging to move, particularly after periods of inactivity.
  • Swelling: Inflammation in the joint can lead to visible swelling, making the joint appear larger or puffy.
  • Redness and warmth: Some joint conditions may cause the skin over the affected area to become red and feel warm.
  • Reduced range of motion: Joint pain can limit your ability to move the affected joint fully, impacting your daily activities and mobility.
  • Weakness: Muscles surrounding the joint may weaken due to pain, swelling and lack of use.
  • Crepitus: Some individuals may experience crepitus, a cracking or grating sensation when moving the joint.

Joint pain causes 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​While joint pain is common, it can stem from various factors. Recognizing what is causing your joint pain is the first step in developing a personalized approach to pain relief and better joint function.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a broad term encompassing numerous conditions that cause joint inflammation and pain. It is typically caused by the natural aging process. However, it can also result from autoimmune disorders, previous trauma or infection. Here are some common types of arthritis and how they contribute to joint pain:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA): Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and primarily affects older adults. It occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of bones wears down over time, which leads to joint pain and stiffness.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack healthy joint tissues, leading to pain, swelling and joint damage. Over time, untreated RA can lead to chronic joint pain and disability.
  • Gout: Gout is arthritis characterized by sudden and severe pain attacks, often in the joint at the base of the big toe. It results from the accumulation of uric acid crystals in the joints.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis: This type of arthritis primarily affects the spine and inflammation in the vertebrae. Over time, it can make the vertebrae fuse together and cause significant pain, stiffness and reduced mobility in the spine and other joints.
  • Psoriatic arthritis: Psoriatic arthritis is associated with psoriasis, a skin condition. It can cause joint pain, swelling and stiffness. The joints affected can be anywhere in the body and may lead to chronic discomfort.

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly called lupus, is an autoimmune disease that can affect various body parts, including the joints. Joint pain is a common symptom of lupus.

Injuries

Two types of injuries can cause joint pain. The first is a specific episode or event that leads to joint pain and the second is an overuse injury, where repetitive motions can cause pain over time. Overuse injuries can cause pain due to fractures, tears such as meniscus or rotator cuff tears, or dislocations where the joint comes out of place.

Bursitis

Bursitis occurs when the bursa sacs, which cushion and reduce joint friction, become inflamed. This inflammation can lead to localized joint pain and discomfort, especially when moving.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis, also known as tendinitis, is characterized by the inflammation of tendons, which connect muscles to bones. It often results from overuse or repetitive motions and can cause localized pain and discomfort in the affected area.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder that affects the muscles, soft tissues, and joints. It is associated with widespread pain and tenderness and is often accompanied by fatigue, sleep disturbances and cognitive difficulties.

Arthralgia vs arthritis

Arthralgia and arthritis are terms often used in joint-related conditions but refer to different aspects of joint pain and disorders.

  • Arthralgia

    Arthralgia describes joint pain or discomfort but doesn't imply any specific underlying joint disease. Arthralgia is characterized by sensations of pain, aching or soreness in the affected joint or joints. The pain may be temporary or chronic and can vary in intensity.

  • Arthritis

    Arthritis is a broader term that encompasses a group of conditions that primarily affect the joints. Arthritis includes not only joint pain but also inflammation and structural changes in the affected joints. These changes can include swelling, redness, warmth and damage to joint tissues, such as cartilage.

    Arthritis can result in various symptoms, including joint pain, stiffness, reduced range of motion and, in some cases, joint deformities. The pain in arthritis can be accompanied by inflammation, distinguishing it from simple arthralgia.

Diagnosing arthralgia

Diagnosing the source of your joint pain is a process to determine the underlying condition and develop a personalized treatment plan. The steps in this journey typically include:

Medical history

Your provider will begin by discussing your symptoms, medical history and any relevant family history. Specific details about the onset, duration and characteristics of your joint pain are crucial.

Physical examination

A thorough physical examination will assess the affected joint's range of motion, strength, stability and visible signs of swelling, redness or warmth.


Imaging

Imaging, such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans, may be ordered to visualize the affected joint's structure and look for abnormalities such as fractures, bone spurs or joint damage.

Blood tests

Blood tests can help identify inflammatory markers and specific antibodies associated with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or auto-immune disorders.



Aspiration

In some cases, a joint aspiration (where your doctor uses a needle and syringe to withdraw fluid) may be performed to analyze fluid extracted from the affected joint. This procedure will help to diagnose specific conditions, such as gout or an infection within the joint.

Joint pain treatment

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Treatment plans for patients will be determined by their care team based on the diagnosis, age, activity level and other treatments attempted in the past. Joint pain treatment options may include:

Rest

Rest is a fundamental element in managing joint pain, especially after an injury or during a flare-up of a chronic condition. It allows the affected joint time to heal and reduces strain, promoting recovery and minimizing discomfort.

Medication

Medication: Medications can be pivotal in controlling joint pain.

  • NSAIDS: Non-prescription pain relievers like acetaminophen or over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help manage pain and reduce inflammation.

Injections

Depending on your diagnosis, your physician may recommend injections directly into the joint. These can include corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, hyaluronic acid for lubrication or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) to stimulate natural healing.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists play a crucial role in the treatment of joint pain. They create personalized physical therapy exercise programs aimed at strengthening muscles, increasing joint flexibility and enhancing overall function. These programs help alleviate pain and improve joint stability for long-term relief.

Surgery

  • Arthroscopy: Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to treat joint conditions. This procedure is typically used to preserve the joint when there is not enough significant joint damage for a joint replacement. It involves the insertion of a tiny camera through small incisions to address and repair issues within the joint. Arthroscopy can benefit and address various joint problems, including cartilage tears, torn ligaments, torn tendons and loose fragments.
  • Joint replacement surgery: In severe joint damage and pain, joint replacement surgery can provide a long-lasting solution. This procedure involves removing the damaged joint and replacing it with an artificial joint, such as a prosthetic knee, hip or shoulder. Joint replacement surgery can significantly improve joint function and relieve pain, offering patients the opportunity for a better quality of life.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the best treatment for joint pain?

    Conservative treatment is the first line of approach for joint pain. This includes rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, physical therapy and lifestyle modifications. If conservative options fail to relieve pain, surgical options may be discussed with your orthopedic surgeon.

  • Can changes in barometric pressure causes joint pain?

    The impact of barometric pressure on joint pain varies among individuals. Some people with joint conditions report increased discomfort during weather changes, particularly when barometric pressure drops. However, the exact level of pressure that causes pain can differ from person to person.

  • What causes joint pain all over the body?

    Systemic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus can cause joint pain all over the body. It can also be associated with viral infections or fibromyalgia. A thorough medical evaluation is crucial to determine the cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

  • Can statins cause joint pain?

    Statins, a class of medications used to lower high cholesterol, may cause joint pain as a side effect in some individuals. It's essential to discuss any unusual symptoms with your healthcare provider, as they can help adjust your medication or explore alternative options. 

  • Does menopause cause joint pain?

    Menopause and hormonal changes can contribute to joint pain in some women. It's important to consult a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation and treatment options if menopausal joint pain is affecting your quality of life.

  • Can dehydration cause joint pain?

    Dehydration can lead to joint pain as it may affect the lubrication and cushioning of joints. Staying well-hydrated is essential for overall health, especially joint health.

  • Can low iron cause joint and muscle pain

    Low iron levels can contribute to joint and muscle pain. Anemia, often associated with low iron, can lead to symptoms like fatigue and muscle aches. Addressing iron deficiency can help alleviate these symptoms.