Diseases & Conditions

Arthralgia - Joint Pain

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Joint pain is a common symptom with many possible causes.

What is going on in the body?

A joint is the place where two bones come together. For example, the knee joint is the place where the thigh bone and shin bone meet. Most people have one or more sore joints at some point in their lives. The joints of the arms and legs are most commonly affected.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

There are many possible causes of joint pain. The causes can be divided into categories:

  • wear-and-tear, such as from overuse, injury, or osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, or joint inflammation.
  • conditions that affect metabolism, such as gout and pseudogout. These conditions result from materials being deposited into the joints.
  • infections of the joint, sometimes called septic arthritis. Infections usually spread to the joint from other areas of the body. Neisseria gonorrhoeae\ bacteria. The infection is usually acquired through sexual contact. ',CAPTION,'Gonorrhea in Males');" onmouseout="return nd();">Gonorrhea and Treponema pallidum\ bacteria. Less often, syphilis is transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby. This form of syphilis is known as \congenital syphilis.\ ',CAPTION,'Syphilis');" onmouseout="return nd();"> syphilis, two sexually transmitted diseases, can cause joint pain. Borrelia burgdorferi.\ It is passed to humans through tick bites. ',CAPTION,'Lyme Disease');" onmouseout="return nd();">Lyme disease, an infection that results from a tick bite, and other infections can also cause arthritis.
  • autoimmune disorders, in which a person's body produces antibodies against its own tissues. These disorders include rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
  • reactive arthritis, which means joint pain and inflammation caused by infections in other areas of the body. This type of joint pain can result from infectious diarrhea or the sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia trachomatis.\ Sexually transmitted disease refers to any contagious disease transmitted from one person to another during sexual contact. In men, the infection normally involves the urethra. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body. ',CAPTION,'Chlamydia Infection in Males');" onmouseout="return nd();">chlamydia.
  • bone diseases, such as Paget's disease, which causes inflamed bones and bone tumors or cancer near joints.
  • medications, such as penicillin or procainamide
  • diseases, such as the flu
  • Other causes are also possible. In some cases, no cause can be found.

    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    When someone reports joint pain, the healthcare provider will need more information about the pain. These questions may be asked:

  • What is the exact location of the pain?
  • When did the pain start?
  • Is more than one joint involved?
  • Is the pain constant or does it come and go?
  • Is the pain made worse or better with activity?
  • Has the joint been hot, red, or swollen?
  • Is there any family history of joint problems?
  • Does the pain limit motion in the affected joint?
  • Are there any other symptoms?
  • What other medications or drugs are being taken?
  • What other medical conditions are present?
  • Additional questions may be asked as well.

    Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of the cause of joint pain starts with a medical history and physical exam. This may be all that is needed to make the diagnosis in some cases. In other cases, more tests may be needed. Different tests may be ordered, depending on the suspected cause.

    Blood tests are often used to help diagnose infections, autoimmune disorders, and metabolism problems. Joint X-rays of the affected area are also common.

    A joint aspiration can be helpful in detecting abnormal cells or deposits in the joints. A needle is inserted through the skin and into the affected joint. A sample of joint fluid is then removed with the needle. The fluid can be sent to the lab for further examination and testing. This procedure can be used to help diagnose septic arthritis, gout, pseudogout, and other conditions.

    Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    Prevention is related to the cause of the joint pain. For example, practicing safer sex can prevent some joint pain resulting from sexually transmitted diseases. Avoiding injuries or certain medications can prevent joint pain from these causes. Many cases cannot be prevented.

    What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    If joint pain is severe, it can limit the person's ability to perform basic activities. Other long-term effects are related to the cause. For example, a cancer affecting the bone may cause death. When the cause is injury or overuse, the joint pain may go away and have no long-term effects.

    What are the risks to others?

    Joint pain is not contagious. But if an infection, such as a sexually transmitted disease, is the cause, the infection may be contagious.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Pain medications, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, can be given to reduce pain. This may be the only treatment needed after an injury, for example.

    Other treatments are directed at the cause of the joint pain. Infections may be treated with antibiotics. Gout is often treated with medications such as allopurinol to help improve the metabolism. Autoimmune disorders can be treated with medications that suppress the immune system, such as prednisone. A person with severe osteoarthritis or a bone tumor may need surgery.

    What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, may cause stomach upset, ulcers, or allergic reactions. Any surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to the anesthesia.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    If the joint pain is caused by a medication, the pain may go away as soon as the medication is stopped. In these cases, a person can return to normal activities when he or she is able. Someone with arthritis or gout often needs lifelong treatment for flare-ups of joint pain.

    How is the condition monitored?

    A person with joint pain can usually monitor the pain at home. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider. Other monitoring may be needed for the underlying cause of the joint pain. For example, someone who has cancer affecting the bone may need frequent visits to the healthcare provider and repeated X-rays.


    Author:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
    Edit Date:02/28/01
    Reviewer:Melissa Sanders, PharmD
    Date Reviewed:07/27/01


    Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.