Joint pain can keep you from getting sleep or enjoying life. Body parts might be stiff, swollen or painful. Your doctor can help you find relief from arthritis.
Growing older can be a pain—especially in our joints. Often, the pain and stiffness are truly age-related, but sometimes, the “ouch” is more than a sign of old age. Joints can feel not only achy but also stiff, swollen or painful to touch. Whether the cause is overexertion, arthritis, wear and tear or the process of an immune disorder, the sensation can keep you from sleeping or enjoying life to the fullest—and your doctor can help you find relief.
Understanding exactly what a body goes through during life can help us be clearer in asserting our health needs and helping our doctors better diagnose any conditions. So, here’s a primer on how joints are put together and what could be causing pain.
What Causes Arthritis? Start With the Daily Grind
We’re born with shock absorbers wherever bones connect—this protective tissue is known as cartilage. We have a lot of it, from our hands and feet to the sensitive discs in our spine. There are a number of issues that can damage cartilage over time—our build and body posture, injuries, repetitive use and disease all can destroy this cushion. When too much cartilage is gone, the friction hurts and causes stiffness.
That’s what arthritis is. And arthritis can happen at any age. The older we get, though, the more wear-and-tear related arthritis worsens—this is known as osteoarthritis. The immune system also works less efficiently as we age, and sometimes the body starts attacking its own joint tissue. Rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus and other inflammatory arthritic conditions can lead to not only pain but also itching, sores, coughing, trouble breathing and eye problems.
If any of this sounds like you, you’re not alone. About half the adults in the U.S. have been told they have some form of arthritis. But learning what is causing your arthritis is important to getting the right treatment. After all, more than 100 conditions affect joints and their coverings or connections.
Taking care of your body at home through simple steps can help ease minor arthritis pain and stiffness, but if the aches grow frequent and unbearable, doctors will need to identify what’s happening before they can help.
Time to Get Moving on Causes of Joint Pain
In half of arthritis cases, people suffer from pain nearly every single day. Many people find relief from mild aches using non-prescription pain relievers. Supplements such as glucosamine sometimes reduce knee pain. Cold or heat treatments can both be worth a try, as applying a bag of ice or frozen food can bring down swelling, while a heating pad, hot shower or bath might relax stiffness. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath is another home treatment. Let your care team know about the drugs or supplements you take and ask about possible side effects.
Keeping the body active is also very important. Joints don’t like sitting still—that’s why it can be painful and slow getting up after rest. Joints need to move to get the natural lubricants in our joints flowing. Starting an exercise routine can increase blood flow and strengthen muscles to help thaw a frozen shoulder and make joints move with less pain.
Doctors can help get to the cause of persistent joint pain and keep it from flaring up. Be prepared to talk with your doctor’s care team about your medical history. Repeated joint stress, infections, trauma, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or kidney conditions can be clues to the sources of pain. Persistent pain can come with fatigue, depression, anxiety or isolation. Family health history provides other leads for caregivers to track down. Finally, weight, smoking or drinking can affect some forms of arthritis.
What Doctors Can Do for Joint Pain and Stiffness
During a physical exam, your doctor may check how well you move your joints and check for swollen, red or hot spots. Lab tests, X-rays and other tests can help determine what might be causing the pain you’re feeling. Drugs will work on some pain triggers, but your doctor will probably look for alternatives that give your joints better protection.
Instead of writing a drug prescription, your primary care doctor may send you to an internist who specializes in joint pain. A physical therapist can also help you work out stiffness and move with less pain. An occupational therapist shows how to accomplish normal tasks more easily, sometimes with canes, splints and other supports. And a behavioral therapist can put you in a better frame of mind to manage your condition.
If it’s been a while since your last physical exam, or something has changed with how you feel, it’s time to see your doctor to find out what’s up. Be honest and as specific as possible about what you’re feeling. Arthritis can’t be cured. Still, your care team can help treat the underlying cause of your discomfort and make you more comfortable, active and happy.