What Is Arthralgia?

Joint Pain

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Arthralgia is a term used to describe aching or pain in one or more of the joints in the body. There are many different causes of arthralgia, including various forms of arthritis and other ailments, injury, infection, and allergic reaction to medication or food.

Arthralgia can be experienced anywhere you have a joint—the point of connection between two bones—such as the wrists, knees, ankles, or elbows. The pain can be described as sharp, dull, stabbing, shooting, burning, or throbbing, and it can range in intensity from mild to severe.

Because arthralgia is usually a symptom of a larger condition happening in your body, you may need additional medical testing before your healthcare provider can determine the underlying cause of your joint pain.

Arthralgia joint pain leads person to see doctor

Mladen Zivkovic / iStock / Getty Images

Definition

Arthralgia and arthritis are similar, so it's easy to get them confused. Because they both deal with joint pain, the terms arthralgia and arthritis are sometimes used interchangeably. Technically, arthralgia is a symptom that refers to joint pain, while arthritis is a health condition that has symptoms of inflammation and pain in the joints.

Though many experts and medical organizations agree upon these definitions, there are some healthcare providers and healthcare professionals who may use the word arthralgia to refer to any type of joint pain, regardless of whether there's inflammation or not.

This is why it's important to clarify your underlying condition with your practitioner after being diagnosed with arthralgia, as it could affect treatment and potential future complications.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of arthralgia is joint pain, which may be described as dull, sharp, stabbing, shooting, burning, throbbing, or aching. Arthralgia can range in intensity from mild to severe, and it can appear suddenly or develop more slowly and get worse over time.

Aside from the pain that characterizes arthralgia, some people also experience additional pain-related symptoms, such as:

  • Soreness or tenderness
  • Redness or warmth
  • Limited mobility
  • Stiffness or weakness
  • Tingling, numbness, or other similar sensations

With arthralgia, it's possible to experience pain daily, or just at certain times. You may also find your arthralgia to be more intense after certain activities, such as exercising, or find that the pain starts up without any particular reason.

If you have pain in more than one joint, it's sometimes referred to as polyarthralgia. Arthralgia can happen anywhere there is a joint on the body, including:

  • Ankle
  • Spine
  • Elbow
  • Hand, fingers, or wrist
  • Hip
  • Knee
  • Shoulder

Causes

There are many different reasons why people experience arthralgia. It's commonly linked to arthritis (inflammation and pain in the joints) but there are a variety of other reasons that you may be stuck with painful joints. Some of the potential culprits could include:

  • Injury, like joint sprain, strain, or dislocation
  • Infection, like viral illness
  • Immune disorder, such as systemic lupus erythematosus or Sjogren's syndrome
  • Allergic reaction to medication or food
  • Joint overuse
  • Degenerative disease
  • Tendonitis

Arthralgia can also be environmental. That means your arthralgia, whether it’s due to arthritis, bursitis, or an injury, can be triggered by changes in the weather, or barometric pressure.

Diagnosis

Because arthralgia can be a product of many different underlying health conditions, your healthcare provider or other healthcare professional will want to perform a careful clinical evaluation to pinpoint the exact cause of your pain before making a diagnosis.

You should expect to answer questions about your symptoms other than joint pain, whether the pain is localized or moving, whether it started suddenly or came on gradually, and how severe it is.

This is in addition to general questions about your health history, such as any other health conditions you have, medications you're taking, and symptoms you've noticed. Your practitioner will likely also require a physical exam of the affected joint and surrounding area, checking for redness, warmth, inflammation, and any difficulty moving the joints.

While there's no definitive test to diagnose arthralgia, there are multiple types of exams that your medical professional could decide to order, depending on your specific case. These include:

Keep in mind that mild arthralgia is usually not a cause for alarm, and may be addressed at your next healthcare provider's appointment. But if your arthralgia starts interfering with your daily life, becomes extremely painful, or if you have a suppressed immune system or other underlying chronic condition, consider being evaluated right away.

Treatment

Treatment for arthralgia will depend on a variety of factors: the joint that’s affected, the severity of the pain, the underlying cause, and your overall health.

If your arthralgia is not serious and does not involve other health complications, it can usually be managed at home with over-the-counter medications and some simple lifestyle tweaks according to your healthcare provider's recommendations:

If your healthcare provider recommends an NSAID or other pain reliever, make sure to mention all medications you're taking to avoid any potential complications.

If it's determined that your case of arthralgia is more severe, it's possible that different medications and procedures may be recommended, especially if your arthralgia is a symptom of a serious underlying health condition. In these instances, your healthcare provider's recommendations could include:

Complications

It’s important to be aware that arthralgia has the potential for serious complications if the joint pain or its underlying condition is left untreated, or not treated properly. That's why it's a good idea to discuss and implement a treatment plan with your healthcare provider or healthcare professional to minimize the risk of complications, including:

  • Inability to perform daily activities
  • Serious infections
  • Severe discomfort or pain
  • Visible joint deformity
  • Disability
  • Amputation
  • Certain types of cancer

Some research has indicated that arthralgia can also be a precursor to certain forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which can affect the entire body.

When to Call the Healthcare Provider

While arthralgia itself is typically not life-threatening, you should seek immediate medical attention if you experience:

  • Severe, unexplained joint pain that lasts for more than several days
  • Fever not associated with flu or other virus
  • Sudden loss of more than 10 pounds without trying
  • Inability to move or use your joint
  • Noticeable joint deformity

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to arthralgia, a healthcare provider's diagnosis is extremely helpful to ensure you're getting the proper treatment. For example, you could think you have arthritis, when your arthralgia is actually a sign of a different underlying health condition.

To make matters even more tricky, as the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation points out, people who have arthritis can often experience arthralgia, but many people with arthralgia may not have arthritis. Regardless of what your diagnosis ends up being, the presence of joint pain is your body's (not-so-subtle) way of letting you know that something is off.

Being open and honest with your healthcare provider or other healthcare professional about your pain and any other symptoms will help get down to the root cause of the issue and, hopefully, get you back on the path of living a healthier life with less pain.

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9 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.
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