Causes and Risk Factors of Joint Pain Beyond Arthritis

Woman running with knee joint highlighted
Yuri_Arcurs/E+/Getty Images
In This Article
Table of Contents

Besides arthritis, there are a number of other potential causes of joint pain, ranging from a joint injury or fracture to more serious, conditions such as leukemia, lyme disease, and a viral infection. Fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, tumors in or around a joint, even depression, can also lead to joint pain. Because there are many possible explanations for joint pain, it's important to get an accurate diagnosis so it can be properly treated.

Common Causes

Joint pain—clinically known as arthralgia—can range from mild to a severe, burning, or sharp sensation in one or several joints. Acute joint pain may last a few weeks and resolve itself without treatment. Chronic joint pain can go on for months or even years. In some cases, it may last a lifetime.

Here is a rundown of the most common causes of joint pain:

Joint Injury

Joint injury, which is typically the result of a fracture or other trauma to a bone or joint, can compromise or weaken the structural components of the affected joint. After a joint injury, you may experience bone bruising, bone remodeling, and damage to surrounding ligaments or cartilage. If a joint is compromised, you may experience pain when you attempt the usual activities of daily life or even when your body is at rest. Sometimes a joint injury increases the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the area, even years later.

Joint injuries can also be caused by:

  • Broken bone
  • Dislocation
  • Sprain
  • Strain
  • Avascular necrosis (AVN), a bone "death," or the complete end of bone tissue function, caused by a loss of blood supply to a bone

Joint Inflammation

Joint inflammation can occur with injury, disease, or infection. When a joint becomes inflamed, the synovium—the soft tissue that lines the entire joint except for the cartilage—thickens. It may become engorged with fluid, a condition called synovitis. This can cause joint pain. Besides pain, joint inflammation is often accompanied by redness, warmth, or stiffness around the affected area.

Other conditions (besides arthritis) associated with joint inflammation are:

Joint Infection

Germs, including bacteria, viruses, or fungus, can travel through the body to a joint and cause pain. They may enter through the skin, nose, throat, ears, or an open wound. An existing infection can also spread to a joint. With delayed treatment or without adequate treatment, joint damage can become permanent.

Infections can come on rapidly (acute) with extreme pain or more slowly, with progressive stiffness, swelling, or pain in the joint or bone. You may or may not have a fever. The type of bacteria found in a joint depends on where the infection is located, but staphylococcus and streptococcus are the most common types of bacteria in joints. Cultures are usually required to diagnose the bacteria and to determine the best treatment. At times, a joint infection can push through the skin and cause a bloody or clear drainage of pus.

Septic arthritis is an especially serious jnfection that travels to a joint. It can be caused by bacteria or result from an open wound, surgery, or an unsterile injection. Typically, septic arthritis affects a single large joint, such as the knee or hip, although it sometimes spreads to several joints. Considered a medical emergency because of the seriousness of the damage it can inflict on bone and cartilage, septic arthritis can lead to septic shock, which may be life threatening.

Infants and older adults are most vulnerable to septic arthritis due to their anatomy and blood supply to the joints.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition characterized by widespread muscle tenderness, along with crippling fatigue. Aching and swelling of the joints are also common symptoms of fibromyalgia, although there is no inflammation.

Tumor In/Around Affected Joint

Though tumors rarely occur in the joints, a tumor near a bone or soft-tissue can cause pain in a nearby joint. Two types of tumors—synovial chondromatosis and villonodular synovitis—develop in the lining of the joints. Generally these tumors are benign. One joint is usually affected, accompanied by severe pain, until part or all of the joint synovium is removed in a surgical procedure call a synovectomy.

Lyme Disease

While Lyme disease can often be treated with antibiotics, left untreated at an early stage the associated bacteria can cause long-term joint pain.

In fact, following infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, about 60% of people develop a condition called Lyme arthritis. This is characterized by inflamed and painful joints and can persist for months or even years in some cases.

Hypothyroidism

The most common cause of hypothyroidism—an underactive thyroid gland—is Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which is when the immune system launches an attack on your thyroid. Hypothyroidism may cause numerous symptoms, including fatigue, weight gain, constipation, cold intolerance, and joint aches and stiffness.

Depression

In some cases, unexplained joint pain may be the manifestation of depression. Other common symptoms of depression include a loss of interest in pleasurable activities, change in appetite, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of hopelessness or guilt.

Leukemia

Some people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) experience joint and bone pain caused by the buildup of leukemia cells in these areas.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Joint pain may affect the function of the joint and limit your ability to do basic tasks and activities you enjoy. It can affect the quality of life.

Treatment should focus not only on the pain but also on the activities that are limited due to joint pain.

Age, weight, previous injuries, and overuse can all be contributing factors in joint pain:

  • Age. After years of use, and wear and tear on joints, problems may arise in middle-aged or older adults.
  • Weight. Excess weight puts additional stress on weight-bearing joints (the knee, for example). Inflammatory factors associated with weight gain might contribute to pain in other joints. For example, when you walk across level ground, the force on your knees is the equivalent of 1½ times your body weight.

Consult your doctor if you have:

  • Disabling joint pain
  • Sudden inability to move a joint
  • Excessive swelling, redness, bruising, or a rash in the affected area
  • Sharp or shooting pain, especially when you exercise or exert yourself
  • A fever

A Word From Verywell

It makes sense to see if your joint pain goes away on its own using over-the-counter medicines and self-treatment. But you should not wait too long before consulting a doctor. There are many possible causes of joint pain, and chronic conditions can be helped with early treatment. In other words, don't ignore joint pain.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.