Joint Pain? These 8 Conditions Could Be To Blame

Are you experiencing tender, aching joints? From gout to rheumatoid arthritis to psoriatic arthritis, pinpoint the cause of your joint pain with this guide.

Oh, my aching joints. 

No doubt you've heard this before (or maybe you've said it yourself). It's more than a cliché. Tens of millions of Americans suffer from joint pain that can sometimes be debilitating. 

If you have joint pain, your top priority should be to find out what's behind the tender, aching joints so you can get suitable therapies. "Diagnosis is absolutely critical," said James R. O'Dell, MD, chief of rheumatology at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "Start off with your primary care doctor, but if you're continuing to have a problem, you need to get a rheumatologist."

Learn more about eight conditions that could be causing your joint pain.

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Osteoarthritis is the most common chronic joint condition. It affects 32.5 million people in the United States. Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage—which normally protects the joints—breaks down, causing the bones to rub directly against each other, triggering pain and swelling.

Although osteoarthritis mainly affects older people, it can appear in people of all ages. Your risk is especially high if you are obese or have overused a joint (such as by playing a sport for many years). The knees, hips, lower back and neck, fingers, the base of the thumb, and big toe are most often affected.

"If it gets worse the more you do, and the more you're up and down after activities of a day, that makes us think more of an osteoarthritis situation and not an inflammatory situation," said Dr. O'Dell. 

Exercise and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers may help keep you moving by reducing pain.

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Psoriatic Arthritis

Managing psoriatic arthritis (PsA) can be challenging, especially since there's no cure for the autoimmune disease that affects around 30% of individuals with psoriasis.

With PsA, there is chronic inflammation where tendons and ligaments connect to bone, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. The condition most commonly appears between 30 and 50 years but can also affect children.

A rheumatologist may be able to suggest treatments that can slow or stop disease progression, lessen pain, and maintain as much range of motion as possible.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disabling autoimmune disease that can be tricky to diagnose. RA is much less common than osteoarthritis, affecting 0.24% of people globally.

The symptoms differ from osteoarthritis. Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling occur in many joints on both sides of the body (such as the hands or knees). Other symptoms can include weight loss, fever, fatigue, and weakness.

RA is an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. Therefore, it can also affect other tissues and areas of the body—including the lungs, heart, and eyes.

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Like RA, lupus is an autoimmune disease. But lupus is different because it can affect any part of the body. Symptoms vary for each person and can include any of the following:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Fever
  • Rashes
  • Chest pain
  • Hair loss
  • Sun or light sensitivity
  • Kidney problems
  • Mouth sores
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Memory problems
  • Blood clotting
  • Eye disease

Although there is no cure for lupus, many people with lupus live long, healthy lives. Your healthcare provider can develop a treatment plan that prevents flare-ups and help alleviate symptoms as they occur.

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Gout is a severe form of arthritis—the pain is so acute that it can wake you up in the middle of the night. 

"It's extraordinarily painful and debilitating," said Dr. O'Dell. 

Gout typically affects the big toe, causing pain, and the toe can become swollen and hot to the touch. High levels of uric acid in the blood cause that type of arthritis. Uric acid is the byproduct of purines in foods like liver, turkey, beer, and red meat. 

Painful episodes can last a few days to weeks and may be triggered by alcohol or consuming food or drinks high in fructose (a type of sugar). Being overweight also puts you at risk, and losing weight can help alleviate pressure on the hips and knees.

The good news? It's highly treatable, according to Dr. O'Dell. Avoiding purine-rich foods such as scallops, herring, and red meat may help, as can taking medications to tame the condition. 

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Lyme Disease

Joint pain is one of many possible symptoms of the tick-borne illness Lyme disease

While the classic early sign of Lyme disease is a telltale "bulls-eye" rash, one of the last symptoms (usually weeks or months after a tick bite) is arthritis and joint pain in the knees and other large joints.

Usually, only one or two joints are affected simultaneously, and episodes become less frequent and less severe as time goes on. 

Getting an early diagnosis and treatment and ongoing medical care is essential if you think you have Lyme disease.

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The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck, is responsible for controlling a variety of bodily functions. 

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland is underactive. When your thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone, you may notice a change in your body, including joint pain. 

In addition to joint pain, symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Feeling especially cold
  • Infrequent bowel movements
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Irregular and heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Infertility
  • Changes in mood, including depression
  • Goiter (an engorged lump in the middle of your neck, near your thyroid gland)
  • Changes in heart rate

If you think you may have an underactive thyroid, consult your healthcare provider. Treatment includes hormone therapy.

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Fibromyalgia is a condition that affects about 2% of adults in the United States. It causes widespread tenderness, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, memory problems, and more.

There is no specific test for the condition, so it can take time to properly diagnose. Fibromyalgia can be managed with various treatments, including pain relievers, aerobic and strengthening exercises, stress management, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).


There are many causes of joint pain.

Whether you're experiencing one tender, aching joint or joint pain in multiple places, consulting a healthcare provider can help you get a diagnosis and treatment plan to be more comfortable and active.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis (OA).

  2. Mease PJ, Gladman DD, Papp KA, et al. Prevalence of rheumatologist-diagnosed psoriatic arthritis in patients with psoriasis in European/North American dermatology clinicsJ Am Acad Dermatol. 2013;69(5):729-735. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2013.07.023

  3. National Psoriasis Foundation. About psoriatic arthritis.

  4. Cross M, Smith E, Hoy D, et al. The global burden of rheumatoid arthritis: estimates from the global burden of disease 2010 studyAnn Rheum Dis. 2014;73(7):1316-1322. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204627

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lupus basics.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing and treating lupus.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gout.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and symptoms of untreated lyme disease.

  10. National Library of Medicine. Hypothyroidism.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fibromyalgia

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