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 the right therapies. "Diagnosis is absolutely critical," said James 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 and affects 32.5 million people in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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 mostly 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, base of the thumb, and big toe are most often affected.

Activity can also aggravate symptoms:"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 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 tends to affect around 30% of individuals who have psoriasis, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 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 the ages of 30 and 50, but can also affect children, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. 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, according to a 2014 study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases. The symptoms are different than osteoarthritis in that there is joint pain, stiffness and swelling that occurs in many joints and on both sides of the body (such as both hands or both knees). Other symptoms can include weight loss, fever, fatigue and weakness, according to the CDC. Because it's an autoimmune disease (meaning the immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake), RA can also affect other tissues and areas of the body, including the lungs, heart, and eyes.

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Like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus is an autoimmune disease, but different in that it can affect any part of the body. Symptoms are different for each person and according to the CDC, 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

That being said, many people with lupus live long, healthy lives. To get a better sense of lupus, watch this video to learn more about the condition, and whether or not you or a loved one may have it.

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Gout is an extremely painful form of arthritis—in fact, 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, and along with causing pain, the toe can become swollen and hot to the touch. This type of arthritis is caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood (uric acid is the byproduct of purines, which are found in foods like liver, turkey, beer, and red meat). According to the CDC, 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 men are more likely to have the condition than women.

The good news? It's also "extremely treatable," Dr. O'Dell said. 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

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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 "bull's-eye" rash, one of the later symptoms (usually appearing weeks or months after a tick bite) is arthritis and joint pain in the knees and other large joints, according to the CDC. Usually only one or two joints are affected simultaneously, and episodes tend to become less frequent and less severe as time goes on. If you think you may have Lyme disease, it's important to get an early diagnosis and treatment, as well as ongoing medical care.

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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 and does not make enough thyroid hormone.

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Fibromyalgia, a condition that affects about 2% of adults in the US, is seen more often in women than men, according to the CDC. It causes widespread tenderness and muscle and joint pain, along with fatigue, memory problems, and more. There is no specific test for the condition, so it can take time to be properly diagnosed. Fibromyalgia can be managed with a variety of treatments, including pain relievers, aerobic and strengthening exercises, stress management and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to name a few.

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There are many causes of joint pain, and whether you're experiencing one tender, aching joint or joint pain in multiple places, talking with a healthcare provider can help you get a diagnosis and treatment plan so you can be more comfortable and as active as possible.

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