Medically reviewed on March 8, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Your ability to bend, move, and navigate your environment is all thanks to your joints. Your joints are simply the spots where your bones are connected by a vast network of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, all of which allow you to do everything from standing to shooting a basketball.
As sturdy and durable as your joints can be, they can also wear down with age, resulting in inflammation and joint pain. Over time, extended joint pain can be debilitating and inhibit your full range of motion. What makes joint pain challenging to diagnose is that dozens of different things can contribute to joint pain, some more severe than others. What causes joint pain and stiffness? Read on to find out more.
The bones, muscles, and tendons surrounding each joint are cushioned by a series of small, fluid-filled sacs called bursae . These sacs can become inflamed, resulting in a condition called bursitis. The symptoms of bursitis include:
Bursitis most commonly occurs in the shoulders, elbows, and hips, but you can ostensibly get bursitis in any joint, including your heel, knees, and even your toes. However, bursitis is typically caused by frequent, repetitive motion, so it’ll happen more often in joints that you are constantly using . This may include:
As you can imagine, this is more common in professional athletes. Still, it’s also common among those with jobs involving repetitive motions, including people who lay carpet, scrub floors, or work in warehouses .
Bursitis can also be caused by injury or trauma to a joint and infections that spread to the joints. Forms of arthritis can also contribute to bursitis .
Thankfully, bursitis will generally get better on its own with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce any discomfort. For more severe forms of bursitis or bursitis that doesn’t go away, your doctor may prescribe:
Arthritis refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by swelling and tenderness in the joints. This contributes to joint stiffness and pain in the joints that can worsen as you get older. Joints can become red and swollen, and you will eventually have a significantly decreased range of motion .
Several forms of arthritis are slightly different in their causes. The two most common are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joints. As the disease progresses, it can potentially damage bone and cartilage within the joint .
Osteoarthritis is characterized by the physical breakdown of the cartilage that covers the joints. As the cartilage gets damaged, bone can grind directly against bone, which is as painful as it sounds. Cartilage degradation can take years to develop, but infections or joint injuries may expedite it .
Medical treatment typically revolves around relieving the pain and inflammation and improving joint function. Over-the-counter pain relievers can provide some comfort, though they generally do not affect joint inflammation. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) reduce both pain and inflammation. Corticosteroids can help to reduce inflammation while suppressing the immune system, which is beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis .
Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy, which can help strengthen muscle weakness and tendons surrounding the joints while improving or maintaining your range of motion .
In severe cases, you may need surgery. This can include fusing the joint into one solid unit or surgically realigning the joints to improve function and reduce pain. A doctor may also suggest a joint replacement, which involves removing the damaged joint and replacing it with an artificial joint. This is usually reserved for the hip and knee joint .
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes widespread musculoskeletal pain, giving way to mood disorders, physical fatigue, sleep disorders, and memory issues. The exact cause requires further studies, but scientists believe fibromyalgia amplifies chronic pain by affecting how the spinal cord and brain process pain signals .
The widespread pain can manifest as a dull ache that lasts at least three months. This pain can affect the joints, muscles, and bones. To be considered fibromyalgia, the pain must affect both sides of the body and above and below the waist. The extensive pain can also cause sleep problems and general cognitive impairment .
Fibromyalgia is typically triggered by a medical event, like severe physical trauma, infection, or surgery. However, fibromyalgia can begin gradually without any triggering event for some people. Genetics may also play a role in developing fibromyalgia .
Treatment for fibromyalgia focuses on minimizing symptoms and supporting your general health. This can include both medication and self-care at home. Pain relievers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medication may help to reduce this chronic pain and ease fatigue. Physical therapy may provide exercises that can help to improve your flexibility, strength, and stamina, all of which can reduce the effects of fibromyalgia on your body .
Hormonal imbalances can play an intrinsic role in everyone’s health. Imbalances in reproductive and stress hormones can potentially contribute to joint pain for women. Fluctuating estrogen levels, particularly in midlife and during perimenopause and menopause, may impact your overall joint health .
Estrogen has a natural anti-inflammatory effect on the body, but your estrogen levels naturally decline as you age. Without enough estrogen to keep inflammation down, you may experience more symptoms, like joint inflammation .
Cortisol is the main hormone released in response to stress. It naturally acts as an inflammatory agent. While this typically isn’t enough to cause issues in short-term stress, with constant, long-term stress, the steady stream of cortisol may lead to chronic inflammation. This can affect the joints and other aspects of your overall health .
If you think you are experiencing hormonal fluctuations or imbalances, it’s worth getting your hormone levels checked with the Everlywell Women’s Health Test, which measures 10 key hormones.
You typically don’t need to see a doctor for mild pain or discomfort in your joints. However, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor if you experience acute pain or swelling, redness, tenderness, or warmth around the joint. If joint pain lasts for more than a few days, you should also consider seeing your doctor. Above all, if any degree of joint pain is beginning to affect your quality of life, you should consult your healthcare provider.
Joint pain can be caused by numerous different things, some of which may be more serious than others. However, it’s impossible to tell by symptoms alone, so consult your healthcare provider.
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1. Bursitis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
2. Arthritis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
3. Fibromyalgia. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
4. Joint pain and stiffness. Women's Health Network. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.