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Find Out What's Really Causing Your Joint Pain

If these joint symptoms sound familiar, it's probably time to see a doctor.

Find Out What's Really Causing Your Joint Pain

While joint pain comes in all shapes and sizes, arthritis is usually to blame. This broad diagnosis includes 100 different conditions and affects about 23 percent of adults. And the problem isn't just annoying joint pain. It's the leading cause of disability and has been linked to other serious health issues, like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. If you're dealing with joint pain that just won't go away, here are a few clues that can help you understand what might be going on—and what to do about it.

Common causes of joint pain
Most people with arthritis fall into four camps. Understanding which type of arthritis could be behind your pain can help you get the treatment you need to feel better.

Osteoarthritis (OA): The most common form of arthritis, OA is when cartilage and bone begin to break down in a joint. The hallmark symptom is stiff joints, most often the hips, knees and ankles. Starting in middle age, stiffness and pain are usually noticed in the mornings, and the problem eventually gets worse over time. There's no cure for OA, but with treatment and weight loss (if you're overweight), you can manage your pain and potentially avoid the need for surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Your immune system is a major player in this form of arthritis. Instead of working as a guard against bacteria and other viruses, it attacks the lining of your joints by mistake. Symptoms—also known as flare-ups—can last anywhere from a few days to a few months and include pain, fatigue and warm, swollen, reddish joints. Early, aggressive treatment with medications and physical therapy can help prevent further joint damage.

Gout: While this inflammatory arthritis is most famous for tormenting the big toe, gout can affect other joints in your body, usually only a few in each person. Attacks can be sudden and severe, with throbbing pain and swelling that lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. But with treatment, your pain can go away within 12 hours. And a few tiny changes in your diet and lifestyle can help prevent gouty attacks.

Fibromyalgia: This type of arthritis also causes morning stiffness, but the pain is usually ongoing and widespread. More than just aching joints, fibromyalgia also causes burning and throbbing pain, tingling and numbness, fatigue and trouble sleeping. It can be difficult to diagnose, but the right care can help kid a lid on symptoms.

Joint inflammation can also be the result of numerous other diseases and conditions, some of which are rare or uncommon. For example, tenosynovial giant cell tumors (TGCTs), a rare disease where benign tumors form in the lining of the joints, are estimated to occur in only a few dozen people out of every million.

Help is always an option
"There can be shades of gray in diagnosing each disease," says Natalie Azar, MD, a rheumatologist at the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Different diseases have different pain, but they can overlap. That's why it's important to see a doctor for a thorough health history, physical exam and labs to get a true diagnosis."

So, when is it time to start treatment? Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut. "Patients generally know when it's time to see a doctor," says Azar. "If pain's affecting your daily life, you're not able to work or function or you have persistent pain or swelling in any way, it's time to see someone. If you don't go, you'll likely ruin that joint."

Medically reviewed in November 2018.

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