Joints form the connections between bones. They provide support and help you move. Any damage to the joints from disease or injury can interfere with your movement and cause a lot of pain.
Many different conditions can lead to painful joints, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, gout, strains, sprains, and other injuries.
Joint pain is extremely common. In one national survey, about one-third of adults reported having joint pain within the past 30 days.
Knee pain was the most common complaint, followed by shoulder and hip pain, but joint pain can affect any part of your body, from your ankles and feet to your shoulders and hands.
As you get older, painful joints become increasingly more common.
Joint pain can range from mildly irritating to debilitating. It may go away after a few weeks (acute), or last for several weeks or months (chronic).
Even short-term pain and swelling in the joints can affect your quality of life. Whatever the cause of joint pain, you can usually manage it with medication, physical therapy, or alternative treatments.
Your doctor will first try to diagnose and treat the condition that is causing your joint pain. The goal is to reduce pain and inflammation, and preserve joint function.
Causes of Joint Pain
- There are several potential causes for joint pain, which can include:
- Older age. As your age increases and the collagen that builds cartilage in your joints start to deteriorate, aches and pains are more likely to occur.
- Arthritis or osteoarthritis. Those with arthritis develop pain due to a complex neurophysiological processes that lead to the generation of inflammation and painful sensations.
- Overuse due to performing repetitive movements. For example runners/triathletes often feels joint pain during long runs. Other sports and hobbies that put pressure on a particular joint over and over can also worsen symptoms, like dancing, cycling, yoga, gymnastics, soccer, football, rowing, etc. Wearing the wrong shoes or worn-out sneakers can worsen joint pain in the legs, sometimes which can travel up the body to the hips, pelvis and back
- Poor posture
- Injuries, impact or trauma
- Inactivity or a sedentary lifestyle, such as sitting for many hours per day
- An autoimmune disorder that increases inflammation, such as Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism or fibromyalgia
- Due to muscle pains or an injury that places pressure on a joint
- Joint pain may also become worse if another condition starts weakening muscles or causing bone pain, such as bursitis, osteoporosis or a fracture
- In rare cases due to an infection, or a virus or illness that causes “achiness”, such as the flu
- A lack of sleep, which can contribute to fatigue, achiness and stiffness
5 Easy Steps to Reduce Joint Pain
It’s free, you can do it almost anywhere, no special training is needed, and it’s easy on sore joints.
A small trial published in March 2016 in the journal Musculoskeletal Care found that people assigned to a walking regimen of three to four times a week generally had improved feelings of well-being and self-efficacy, while people in the control group did not.
Other benefits of walking include weight loss, which in turn is helpful for easing stress and pain in the joints.
It also promotes heart health. Craig Hensley, PT, DPT, an assistant professor of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern Medicine’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago notes that the cardiac benefit of exercise is especially important for people with RA.
That’s because RA is known to increase the risk for heart disease, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Being in the water is a great place to stretch your muscles and soothe your joints, so hit the pool for an aerobic workout. Swim laps or try a water aerobics class.
A study published in March 2017 in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation found that 16 weeks of water-based exercises in women with RA led to significant improvements in joint and other pain, as well as lowered disease activity, when compared to the effectiveness of land-based aerobic exercises.
Swimming helps control weight, boost mood, and improve sleep, and it’s good for overall health, Madhoun says. There are a number of RA-friendly water exercises you can try.
Epsom Salt Soak
A classic remedy for any muscle or joint ache is taking a relaxing bath with Epsom Salts.
High in magnesium and sulfates, Epsom salts are easily absorbed through the skin to provide quick relief as they lower inflammation, reduce muscle spasms and relax tense areas. Add two cups of salts to warm bathwater and soak for at least twenty minutes.
Alternatively, Epsom Salts can be used in a compress to apply directly to the skin. Simply dilute two cups into one gallon of water then soak your towel for several minutes to absorb the solution.
You can also try adding essential oils to your Epsom salt bath; the kind you choose will depend on what’s causing your pain.
For example choose lavender essential oil if stress is worsening an existing condition that causes pain, or apply peppermint oil if the painful site feels warm and swollen.
The scientific proof that acupuncture improves osteoarthritis pain is a little iffy. (Studies have been mixed, and it’s hard to rule out the placebo effect.)
But a 2013 research review did conclude that there’s some evidence that this alternative treatment improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia (an arthritis-like condition characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain).
So if you’re not averse to needles, book a few sessions.
Just remember that frequent visits may be needed before you see results, and most insurance plans won’t cover it, says Sheryl Mascarenhas, MD, an assistant professor of rheumatology at The Ohio State University.
It’s no secret that omega-3 fatty acids, including fish oil supplements, have anti-inflammatory properties.
It turns out these supplements also could help aching joints feel better. A 2015 study from Thailand found that when people with osteoarthritis of the knee took 1,000 mg of fish oil supplements (a combination of EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid) once a day for 8 weeks, their pain decreased and their functioning improved significantly.
Other research has found that getting more omega-3s enabled people with rheumatoid arthritis to reduce their reliance on NSAIDs.
Bonus step to reduce pain
You can relieve short-term joint pain with a few simple techniques at home. One method is known by the acronym, PRICE:
- Protect the joint with a brace or wrap.
- Rest the joint, avoiding any activities that cause you pain.
- Ice the joint for about 15 minutes, several times each day.
- Compress the joint using an elastic wrap.
- Elevate the joint above the level of your heart.
Applying ice to your painful joints can relieve the pain and inflammation. For muscle spasms around joints, try using a heating pad or wrap several times a day.
Your doctor may recommend that you tape or splint the joint to minimize movement or reduce pain, but avoid keeping the joint still for too long because it can eventually become stiff and lose function.