Many different types of illness and injury can cause joint pain. The underlying condition that causes it can be mild or severe, acute or chronic. If joint pain is mild, isn’t accompanied by other symptoms, and persists for less than three days, then home treatment may be all you need. Commonly recommended home treatments for joint pain include
- Applying heat and/or ice, warm baths
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as Advil or Aleve)
- Topical pain relievers (either natural or pharmaceutical)
- Supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, and turmeric
When to Consult a Doctor About Joint Pain
If joint pain is persistent or appears with other symptoms, you may want to consult with your doctor. It’s a good idea to check in with your primary care provider if
- The pain lasts for more than two days
- Multiple joints are affected
- The area around the joint is red, swollen, and/or warm to the touch
- You’re experiencing reduced mobility that interferes with daily activities
- The joint pain appeared with a fever
- You’ve also experienced sudden weight loss
See your doctor promptly if, following an injury, the joint
- Is unusable
- Swells suddenly
- Becomes intensely painful
- Appears deformed
Common Causes of Chronic Joint Pain
If your joint pain is severe or persistent enough to warrant a trip to your doctor, they will likely begin with questions about the history of your pain as well as your family history of joint issues. After a physical examination of the affected joint, the doctor may then order imaging and/or lab tests to investigate possible causes. While many different conditions can contribute to joint pain, three of the most common causes of chronic pain in the joints are arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.
The term “arthritis” includes different conditions that cause pain, inflammation, and swelling of the joints. The most common of these is osteoarthritis, in which wear and tear on the joint causes deterioration of the cartilage. Osteoarthritis becomes more common with age, but some types of injuries can cause it to appear earlier in life. X-ray imaging is often used to diagnose osteoarthritis. Treatments can range from rest and over-the-counter pain reliever followed by strengthening exercise to steroid injections and/or surgery. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage may also provide relief.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack the joints. The joint lining becomes inflamed, and the inflammation can then spread to nearby cartilage, bone, and other tissues. RA can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because it can mimic other conditions such as lupus; however, lab tests can help identify RA. X-ray, ultrasound, and/or MRI may be used to track the progression of RA. Treatment typically involves medication. Physical therapy, assistive devices, and/or surgery may also be recommended, depending on the course of the illness.
Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that provide cushioning for the moving parts of a joint: bones, muscles, and tendons. When joints are subjected to repetitive motions or persistently misaligned postures, the bursae within the overtaxed joints can become inflamed. This can cause joints to feel stiff and achy and look red and swollen. Some types of illness, such as gout and diabetes, can also contribute to bursitis.
Bursitis isn’t clearly identifiable on X-ray images, so if your doctor suspects bursitis, they may order an ultrasound or MRI to confirm the diagnosis. Your doctor might also order lab testing of the bursal fluid to assess the underlying cause.
Often, bursitis gets better on its own after a period of rest. Ice packs and over-the-counter pain medication can also provide relief. Strengthening the muscles of the joint can help prevent repeated injury. If these conservative measures are insufficient, steroid injections, aspiration of the bursal fluid, or surgery may be recommended. If bursitis is caused by an infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.
Tendonitis is inflammation of one or more tendons, the structures that connect muscles to bone. As a result, tendonitis tends to cause a dull ache just outside the joint. The joint also may feel stiff and/or weak. A noticeable lump may develop at the site of the tendon. Like bursitis, tendonitis is often caused by repetitive motion, but it can also be the result of acute injury.
Tendonitis is typically diagnosed by physical exam. It can often be treated with simple measures like rest, cold packs, and over-the-counter pain medication. Exercises may also be prescribed to strengthen the affected joint. For more severe cases, steroid injections or surgical repair of the tendon may be recommended.
Another treatment that can be useful to treat chronic tendonitis is minimally invasive ultrasonic treatment, in which a small instrument emits ultrasonic waves to break down and remove damaged tissue. After the procedure, the body’s own healing mechanisms regrow healthy tissue in its place.
The best way to care for your joints is with a healthy diet, regular exercise that includes gentle stretching, and healthy body alignment. Avoid repetitive motions as much as possible, and give your joints a rest if they start to ache. If you still experience ongoing joint pain, talk to your doctor about the best way to address it. Iowa Radiology provides a full range of imaging services as well as ultrasonic tendonitis treatment using the Tenex Health TX™ procedure.
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