The Causes of Arthritic Joint Locking

Rough edges and bone spurs are contributing factors

Even if you haven't been diagnosed with arthritis, you may have experienced the unpleasant phenomenon known as joint locking. Arthritis patients in need of knee replacement surgery may experience this condition. Sometimes, individuals with arthritis of the fingers experience it as well.

Physical therapist working with patient who has knee problems
BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

So what exactly is joint locking? It's a bit shocking when it first happens, but this condition describes when your joints get stuck, and you can't release them. To make matters worse, joint locking tends to be a painful experience.

If you've experienced joint locking at least once or twice or even repeatedly, use this overview of the condition to discover the causes of joint locking and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. You can also learn how to treat a joint that has already locked. Relief is on the way!

When Rough Edges of the Bones Come Into Contact

Arthritis leads to joint locking because as the cartilage wears away, the ends of the bones that form a joint become rough. With severe disease, bone rubs on bone. As the joint moves, the rough edges can catch on one another.

When the rough or uneven surfaces of the two bones that form the joint come into contact, it is possible for the joint to lock. The joint is not permanently locked, but you have to force it out of that position and allow it to move again. If that sounds painful, that's because it can be.

Joint locking can also be caused by loose material in the knee, such as bone or cartilage fragments. A torn meniscus may also lead to joint locking, but an orthopedic surgeon to treat the tear and regular physical therapy afterward may help.

Bony Projections or Outgrowths

Along the rough edges, bone spurs or bony projections (osteophytes) can develop, although they are usually smooth. Bone spurs can rub against adjacent bone or even nerves that are close by. Bone spurs can also be found where ligaments and tendons connect with bone. Most bone spurs don't cause problems, but others can be painful and cause a joint to lock. It ultimately depends on the location of the spur.

Even people without arthritis develop bone spurs. For example, people who run long distances, especially those who train for marathons, develop bone spurs, making them vulnerable to joint locking. If intense physical activity is to blame for your bone spurs, and thus your joints locking, you may need to cut back or give up intense exercise altogether for activities that are low-impact and non-weight bearing.

The Bottom Line Solution

To eliminate the problem of a joint locking, surgical removal of the offending bone spur is an option. Arthroscopic surgery can remove loose bone fragments and smooth out the rough edges if the bone spur presses on nerves and causes serious pain, or if they limit movement. The ultimate surgical solution is a joint replacement for patients with severe joint damage. Often, cortisone injections are given in the affected joint to decrease inflammation. The injection should help with the pain.

Of course, surgery should always be the last report. If your physician sees no other option to treat your joint locking but surgery, then you might need to go under the knife. But get a second, or even a third, opinion before doing so. Exhaust all of your options before surgical intervention, since all surgery comes with risks.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. Frequently asked questions about arthritis. 2019.

  2. Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute. Loose body removal. 2019.

  3. UPMC Orthopaedic Center. Bone spur (osteophyte) symptoms and treatment. 2019.

  4. Harvard Medical School. Bone spurs. Harvard Health Publishing. December 2014.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Bone spur management and treatment. Reviewed October 9, 2017.

Additional Reading

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."