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What are the causes of swollen joints?

Thousands of people suffer from swollen joints every year, and it’s safe to say we have all likely suffered with some form of joint pain or swollen joints at one time or another. It can mean anything from a small injury to a long-term condition and sadly, the effects can be painful and even debilitating for some.

Joints are complex structures comprised of bone, cartilage, muscles, and tendons, and are designed to bear your weight and allow your limbs to move. Your knee, for example, involves your kneecap gliding through a groove at the lower part of your thigh bone (femur). Ligaments hold everything together with all bones contained within the joint capsule and are cushioned by cartilage.

There are many reasons why you may be suffering from swollen joints; it’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong and needs looking at. Here is some information on how to understand the causes of swollen joints, recognise the symptoms, what they mean and how you can treat them.

What causes joint inflammation?

Swollen joints are caused by the build-up of fluid in the soft tissue surrounding the joint. It may occur alongside pain and make the joint appear enlarged or misshapen. It may have many causes, from a short-term injury to a long-term medical condition. Either way, it’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong and will need looking at.

Inflammation of this is the way your body responds to injury, infection or irritants. For example, swelling could be caused by damage to the bone or nearby muscles. Alternatively, it might be indicative of an underlying condition such as inflammatory arthritis. It may also be down to an allergy or a biological response to a toxin.

The visible signs of swollen joints occur when tissue around the joint, or the immune system release chemicals which cause swelling and other joint pain symptoms. The effects can be long or short-term and may affect one joint or multiple joints.

While inflammation may cause you problems, it does have a purpose. Inflammation dilates the surrounding blood vessels allowing faster flow of blood to the area. White blood cells – the body’s immune response – rush to the point of inflammation to fight any infection or irritant. This causes inflammation and you may experience anything from mild to extreme joint pain. The joint may also feel hot. These symptoms may continue while the body fights the condition.

In most cases, the causes may be short-term – such as an infection, allergy response or an injury. In those cases, the problem should resolve itself unless it’s a serious injury such as a broken bone. For these short-term impacts, inflammation helps the body fight off dangerous invaders.

However, it’s when things are more long-term that problems occur. Whole-body joint pain causes include underlying conditions which could lead to inflammation across the entire body rather than just one single area. If swelling becomes long-term or chronic, it can cause significant damage to the joint, reducing your mobility and potentially causing other problems.

What are the symptoms of swollen joints?

Symptoms can manifest themselves in a number of ways. Sometimes they may be extremely obvious such as swelling; other times they may be more subtle. The most common symptoms to look for are:

  • Bulging: The joint may swell in size appearing misshapen.

  • Movement: Even if there is no clear swelling, you may experience difficulty moving.

  • Pain: Any ongoing pain or aching of the joint can indicate a problem. You may also feel discomfort in areas around the joint.

  • Discolouration: The skin around the joint may look red or be warm.

In some cases, pain may migrate, or cause follow-on injuries which impact other areas of the body. For example, when suffering from joint pain, you may favour other joints. This can put additional strain on them which may lead to other injuries. It’s a phenomenon we all know all too well: one injury can lead to others.

What do these symptoms mean?

Swollen joints can have a number of causes. The most obvious and common will be an injury. When tissue is damaged, it releases a chemical which causes localised inflammation and encourages faster blood flow to the area to speed up repair. In most cases, it will only occur to the joint damaged, but if several joints are close to one another, multiple joints may be affected.

Usually, linking an injury to swelling will be pretty easy. This is the body’s natural response and should speed up the healing process. However, it will be painful and, if it lasts for a long time, could cause damage or slow the process of repair.

Aside from injury, it could also be caused by an infection, allergic response or arthritis. Arthritis is relatively common as we get older and can cause swollen joints. It is a group of conditions and, in its inflammatory form, can cause long-term, chronic swelling which can worsen over time. Problems may start in one joint and spread to others as the condition gets worse over time. If you think you may have arthritis, read our article on the symptoms of arthritis to learn more.

Problems might be caused by a faulty immune system which mistakenly attacks healthy tissue or other issues such as infection. That infection can spread through the bloodstream causing problems across the body.

If caused by an infection, the problem will probably not be chronic and can improve with rest and treatment. Whatever the cause, if joint swelling lasts for a long time or gets to a stage where it is impeding your quality of life, it is important to get it seen to by a GP.

Treatment

The right treatment will depend on the cause. If it’s down to an injury and you’re otherwise healthy, rest may be enough to do the trick. Applying an ice pack might be a good way to reduce the swelling and numb the pain. Heat can also help but in some cases, it may also make the problem worse. You should be mindful of anything which might put a strain on it and exacerbate the problem.

For other problems, the following treatments may be appropriate.

  • Physical therapy - can help people regain movement in stiff or swollen joints and can slow the progress of chronic inflammation.

  • Prescription medication - medications for arthritis or anti-inflammatory drugs such as metformin can help. There are also a number of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which can alleviate symptoms.

  • Corticosteroid injections - can mitigate some symptoms and may reduce inflammation.

  • Lifestyle - there is also some evidence that changes to your diet can help fight inflammation or reduce the chances of developing long-term problems. Some patients have also used massage therapy, acupuncture or other alternative remedies. However, hard evidence about these is lacking so it’s usually advised to practice them alongside other treatments.

Research has linked joint pain to an increased risk for falls, which could then sadly lead to further pain or injury. To avoid the risk of tripping, we suggest you ensure that your home and work environments are checked for potential hazards such as rugs, carpets and wires. Read more on how to avoid common trip hazards.

If you or a loved one is suffering with joint pain or swelling, it could be very beneficial to wear a personal alarm with automatic fall detection so if you do suffer a fall, it will send an alert and someone will be on hand to help quickly.

Whether the cause of swollen joints is short-term and mild or long-term and leads to extreme joint pain, it’s worth consulting a doctor if the problems persist for more than two days. Even in severe and chronic cases, they may be able to recommend treatments which can help you cope with it as easily as possible.

Call SureSafe's team of experts on 0800 112 3201 to learn more about our personal alarms.

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