Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog
The Complete Guide to Joint Pain: Causes, Treatments & Prevention
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Joint: it’s a word with a lot of meanings, including a place where you might eat burgers, something shared between two organizations, a prison, a kind of cigarette and, in the original sense of the word, the place where two bones meet.
Our joints are crucial, of course, since they help us move. Unfortunately, joints are also where pain frequently settles in and gradually gets worse. Let’s take a closer look at why and how that happens.
What is a joint and what is joint pain?
Joints are the structural elements that connect our bones and help them move. With about 206 bones in the average human body, that’s a lot of joints! Unfortunately, joints are subject to so much movement, they can wear down or be suddenly injured, resulting in joint pain that can range from dull aches and stiffness to stabbing feelings. Back aches, for example, are common because the back contains so many joints.
Joint and the areas that support joints can include the following elements:
- Ligaments are short and fibrous tissues that directly connect one bone to another
- Tendons are more elastic, and with good reason: they attach muscles to bones, so they need to be a little springy, to permit enough movement
- Cartilage is a protective tissue that covers bones so they don’t rub directly against each other
- A meniscus is the curved layer of cartilage in particular joints, such as the knee joint
- Bursae are sacs of fluid that cushion joint elements from nearby ligaments and bones
To sum that up, joints can contain several different types of tissue, and are highly specialized, depending on what part of the body they’re in and what kind of motion they’re enabling. With so many moving parts within each joint, wear and tear is inevitable, and is sometimes accompanied by pain. On the other hand, aging doesn’t mean joint pain is inevitable. Proper care and preventive measures can help a lot.
What causes joint pain?
Inflammation is often the villain behind hurting joints. What do we mean, exactly, when we talk about inflammation? Injuries, infections, immune system disorders and repetitive use can stress a joint, making it release chemicals as it tries to protect itself. These chemicals often cause tissue swelling, soreness, stiffness, aches and other kinds of pain.
Arthritis is one of the most common types of joint inflammation, and there are more than 100 different subtypes of arthritis, not to mention all the other causes for joint pain.
Common disorders related to joint pain
Joints bear a real burden as they daily carry our weight and help us move. Wear and tear, inflammatory conditions and infections can all lead to joint pain. Below we’ll list a few common diseases or disorders within each of those categories.
Some fairly common disorders and diseases related to everyday wear and tear include:
- Osteoarthritis: This is a big one, affecting 32.5 million Americans. It most often shows up in the hands, hips, and knees. Those are high-use joints where cartilage erodes and bones lose their cushioning protection.
- Bursitis: The fluid-filled sacs (bursae) in shoulders, elbows, hips and knees can become inflamed after a lot of repetitive motion. Aging makes bursitis more likely, but carefully avoiding repetitive motions and giving tender joints a rest when they need it helps control bursitis-related stiffness and soreness.
- Tendinitis: “Tennis elbow” might be a more familiar term. Regardless, tendinitis is the medical name for tendons that get irritated or inflamed after being used the same way over and over again.
Inflammatory diseases and disorders
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This disorder surfaces when the body’s immune system turns on itself, mistakenly going after its own joint linings. Over time, chronic inflammation caused by this condition can affect many other parts of the body, often leading to painful swelling, nodules, and disabilities throughout the body.
- Psoriatic arthritis: Similar to rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis can lead to sore, sometimes warm joints. It often affects people who have psoriasis, a condition that makes patches of skin scaly and red. Psoriatic arthritis can also settle in the lower back, where it’s called spondylitis, or in the tendons of the feet.
- Ankylosing spondylitis: This disease affects the spine, inflaming spinal bones and sometimes causing them to fuse, which can make it difficult to stand up straight or breathe deeply.
With so many germs afoot, infections lurk everywhere, multiplying the chances for joint inflammation and pain. Many types of infectious arthritis can be resolved relatively quickly, however.
- Bacterial infections: These kinds of infections often start fast, come with fevers and chills and stay in a single area of the body. Fortunately, antibiotics usually quell them if caught in time.
- Viral infections: With viral infections, the whole body can hurt. The viruses that cause mumps, mono, hepatitis and yes, even COVID-19 can potentially irritate joints as well. The body often solves these kinds of infections on its own, but it’s prudent to talk to your doctor if symptoms like stiffness or soreness last longer than two weeks.
- Fungal infections: These infections are usually slow and are often resolved with antifungals. Bird droppings and roses, of all things, are often implicated in the kind of fungal infections that lead to joint pain.
How should I treat joint pain?
Since inflammation is the underlying cause of a lot of joint pain, it makes sense to control that inflammation. Strategic rest, very gentle stretches and over-the-counter NSAID or anti-inflammatory pain medications are a solid start. Other approaches include:
- Ice or heat packs: If you hurt a joint through an accident or sudden injury, cold packs for the first 48 to 72 hours could help, followed by applying heat packs.
- Rest: If the pain is probably due to overuse, figure out other ways to move. If you regularly play a sport like golf that is full of repetitive motions, for example, temporarily shifting to a sport like biking may help.
- Supplements: Glucosamine supplements support joint health and may slow cartilage degeneration.
- Creams: Ointments, gels and topical creams can provide joint pain relief (with some being more effective than others.)
- Supportive aids: Tools to help you take stress off your joints could be as simple as canes or shoe inserts, or as complex as specialized braces, desks and beds. Many kinds of devices now exist to help you move safely and smoothly while reducing stress on your joints.
- Occupational or physical therapy: Occupational therapists could suggest assistive devices or alternative ways to move so you can give your joints a break. They specialize in taking an overall view of your situation and helping your surroundings support you in your everyday life, while physical therapists concentrate on rehabilitating specific injuries.
If those don’t seem to work for you, a visit to a pain specialist may be the next step. Specialists are trained to deal with a wide range of conditions that cause pain, and should have access to cutting-edge science and medicine to support you and your joints.
Pain specialists may start by suggesting non-invasive ways to work with aching joints and may prescribe anti-inflammatory pain medications such as diclofenac. In some cases, they may recommend surgeries, possibly including joint replacements.
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How can I prevent joint pain?
Prevention, when possible, is the best cure. You can cut your risk of suffering from joint pain by:
- Varying the way you move: Use a joint the exact same way over and over, and it’ll wear out pretty quickly and predictably. So try to avoid repeating the same motions. Consider adding yoga, stretching or overall weight lifting to help strengthen your joints and muscles and balance out the stress. Hand pain, including wrist pain, elbow pain and knee pain are common, since those joints are moved so much, so be especially careful about putting weight on your knees or about repeating the same arm motions over and over.
- Supporting previously hurt joints: If you’re injured a joint before, it’s now more vulnerable to stress and wear and tear. Shoulders and hip joints frequently get hurt or feel sore, so pay them some special attention. If you’ve previously hurt your knee, for example, be careful while doing squats. If it was your shoulder, be careful when lifting, swimming, playing tennis and doing other shoulder-intense activities.
- Paying attention to arthritis: As we age, arthritis becomes more likely (though not inevitable). If you’ve already dealt with it, you’re now at a higher risk of experiencing it again. So be extra gentle to your joints, and closely monitor any pain flare ups.
- Staying mentally healthy: Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions can make your body more sensitive to pain and more likely to experience stress-related flare-ups. A psychologist who is familiar with pain management could be an excellent addition to your healthcare team. Stress management, proper medication, maintaining important relationships and keeping your basic foundations of healthy eating and exercise matters a lot when it comes to staying mentally healthy and capable of handling stress.
- Moving: Could you do five minutes of manageable exercise today? Ten? Thirty minutes at least three or four times a week would be ideal, but when it comes to exercise, something is usually better than nothing for keeping joints functional. Yoga and pilates are fairly gentle on the joints, as are biking and swimming.
- Eat well: Eat bright, with lots of colors on your plate, following an anti-inflammation way of eating. If in doubt, think of the Mediterranean diet: lots of vibrant vegetables, beans, nuts, olive oil and fish.
To sum it up, keeping a strong foundation will also keep your joints strong. Exercise sustainably, eat well and don’t put too much weight, sudden pressure, or repetitive stress on your joints, and you’ve set the stage for them to keep serving you smoothly and safely for a long time yet to come.
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Pretty much all of us need to take good care of our joints. Clearing makes that a little easier by addressing chronic pain. Plans at Clearing could include compounded topical creams, tailored exercise programs, nutraceuticals, CBD cream and access to advanced pain specialists.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.