What Causes Joint Pain? Diagnosis and Treatment

By Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 10, 2022

Many things could be the source of pain in your joints. Whether caused by a single factor or several, chronic joint pain can be difficult to cope with.

Your symptoms, area of discomfort, and health history can help your doctor correctly diagnose and treat your joint pain.

In this article, I’ll cover common causes of joint pain, how your doctor may diagnose them, and available treatments.

What is Joint Pain?

Joint pain is discomfort or inflammation in any of your joints.

The pain may be persistent, or it may come and go depending on your activity. 

Common areas where you may experience joint pain include the hands, hips, knees, feet, and spine.

In addition to pain, you may experience joint stiffness, especially in the morning.

Body aches and pains are an uncomfortable symptom caused by muscle inflammation and soreness.

Sometimes, they can be sharp and intermittent. Other times, they may feel more like a prolonged, general ache.

Most body aches and pains are short-term and harmless, and can be a result of your lifestyle, illness, or any underlying condition.

They may occur when your muscles are inflamed, either through physical stress, or through an immune response.

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  • Injury: Trauma to the bone or overuse of the joint
  • Fibromyalgia: Chronic pain condition associated with nervous system dysfunction
  • Hemarthrosis: Bleeding in a joint
  • Hypothyroidism: Underactive thyroid gland responsible for balancing hormones 
  • Lyme Disease: Bacterial infection transmitted via tick bite
  • Depression: A mental illness that impacts mood
  • Osteoarthritis: The most common form of arthritis
  • Gout: Inflammatory arthritis associated with high uric acid levels in the blood
  • Pseudogout: Inflammatory arthritis that develops due to calcium deposits in the joints
  • Septic Arthritis: A bacterial or fungal infection in the joint
  • Viral Arthritis: Joint pain caused by a virus
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: An autoimmune disease that affects the joints
  • Spondyloarthritis: A group of arthritis conditions that develop in the spine and nearby joints
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: A chronic autoimmune disease that can affect joints
  • Polymyalgia Rheumatica: An inflammatory joint disease that commonly affects individuals over 50

Diagnosis

Pinpointing the cause(s) of your joint pain enables your healthcare provider to recommend the best treatment.

To diagnose the pain you’re experiencing, your provider will chat with you and go over your health history.

They may also order diagnostic tests depending on your symptoms.

Medical History

Some joint conditions are hereditary, so your doctor may ask you about any family history of joint pain, arthritis, or autoimmune disease.

Be sure to thoroughly describe your symptoms in detail.

Pain location, intensity, and activities that make the discomfort better or worse are important insights your doctor should know.

Physical Examination

Your provider will look for any visible signs of inflammation around the joint where you’re feeling pain, including signs like redness and swelling.

They may press on the joint to check for warmth and tenderness. They may also move your joint around to assess the range of motion and stiffness.

Labs and Tests

The doctor may order a blood test to rule out certain types of arthritis and autoimmune disorders.

Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein tests also check for inflammation in the body.

Those test results may give important clues to your doctor.

Imaging

An imaging test may be needed for your provider to exclude or confirm a diagnosis.

The type of test will depend on what your physician may suspect is causing your joint pain.

Common imaging tests used to diagnose joint pain include:

  • X-ray
  • Ultrasound
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan

Procedures

A joint aspiration may need to be performed if your doctor suspects gout or septic arthritis to be the culprit of your joint pain.

During this procedure, a needle removes fluid from inside the lining of the joint then sent to a laboratory to be analyzed.

Differential Diagnosis

Tests may sometimes uncover that another non-joint related condition is the source of your joint pain. Examples include:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Tendonitis 
  • Lyme Disease
  • Lupus

Treatment

Once your physician finds the cause of your joint pain, they can get you started on the right treatment. Now is the time to ask questions about treatment options.

You can call your health insurance provider to learn more about the cost and coverage of treatment for joint pain.

Your doctor may recommend a single treatment or a combination of:

  • Injections: Inflammation and pain reducer injected directly into the joint, though it is uncertain if there is benefit over placebo. Your provider will determine if this is appropriate.
  • Physical Therapy: Exercise, massage, and heat to ease pain and increase mobility
  • Topical Agents: Topical pain reliever absorbed through your skin
  • Medications: Over-the-counter and prescription drugs to alleviate symptoms
  • Self-Care Strategies: Resting, icing, stretching, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet
  • Complementary Alternative Medicine: Acupuncture, yoga, and nutritional supplements
  • Surgery: In rare cases, a surgeon may need to replace your joint to alleviate severe, chronic joint pain that no longer responds to other treatments
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When to See a Medical Provider

Typically, joint pain is not an emergency.

In fact, you can usually manage mild pain at home.

But you should call your doctor if the pain is severe and/or accompanied by:

  • Warmth around the joint
  • Inability to use the joint
  • Redness of the skin
  • Swelling around the joint
  • Tender to the touch

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do your joints hurt when you have COVID-19?
Some people experience body aches and joint pain during and after having the COVID-19 virus. However, the severity and longevity of the joint pain varies from person to person.
What is joint pain a symptom of?
Joint pain may be a symptom of an autoimmune disorder, arthritis, injury, or other chronic conditions. It’s best to visit your doctor to determine if the pain you’re experiencing is a symptom of another condition.
What is the best thing to do for joint pain?
You can use several self-care strategies to manage mild joint pain at home. Icing the joint, resting, and taking OTC pain medication can provide relief. If your pain is severe and accompanied by redness and swelling, see a healthcare provider.
What’s the most common cause of joint pain?
Arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain. There are more than 100 types of arthritis. Your doctor can confirm which type of arthritis you may have by visiting with you and reviewing results from your diagnostic tests.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD

Dr. Latifa deGraft-Johnson is a board-certified family medicine physician with 20 years of experience. She received her bachelor's degree from St. Louis University, her medical degree from Ross University, and completed her family medicine residency at the University of Florida. Her passion is in preventative medicine and empowering her patients with knowledge.