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Old woman with joint pain and swelling.

Old woman with joint pain and swelling.
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Joint pain and swelling

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What is joint pain and swelling?

Swollen joints happen when there is fluid in the tissues around the joints. It can be very uncomfortable and can make it difficult to move the affected joints. In some cases, swelling may cause affected joints to increase in size or appear to be an odd shape.

Joint pain and swelling can affect more than one joint at a time. The most common joints to be affected by pain and swelling are elbows, wrists, shoulders, the base of the spine, knuckles, hips, knees or ankles.

There are two types of joint pain and swelling: acute and chronic. Acute joint pain and swelling comes on quickly and lasts a short time, for example, if you have an injury. Chronic joint pain and swelling comes on slowly and cause long-term problems. This is more likely to be caused by an underlying condition such as a type of arthritis.

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What symptoms are related to joint pain and swelling?

The symptoms of joint pain and swelling can vary from person to person, and depend on which joints are affected. The pain and swelling is often accompanied by stiffness, aches and a feeling of heat or warmth.

In some cases, it can lead to problems moving around, completing daily activities (such as washing and dressing), and for some people, working.

Joint pain and swelling may be better or worse at different times of the day. For example, you may find that your joint pain and swelling is worst first thing in the morning. Pain and swelling in the joints can also lead to tiredness and fatigue.

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What causes joint pain and swelling?

Acute joint pain usually comes on quickly and lasts a short while. Some frequent causes of acute joint pain include:

  • injury, such as sprains and strains
  • overuse of the joint
  • an infection
  • other illnesses, such as the flu

Chronic joint pain and swelling may be caused by a 'rheumatic' condition — a condition that affects your joints, bones and muscles. There are more than 200 different kinds of rheumatic conditions, including arthritis, gout and lupus.

The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

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How is joint pain and swelling treated?

Acute joint pain, such as strains and sprains, can usually be helped by the PRICE method:

  • Protect the joint area from further damage or harm.
  • Rest the joint — avoid activities that cause pain.
  • Ice the joint for 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours — make sure the ice is wrapped up so it doesn’t touch your skin.
  • Compress the joint with a bandage which is firm, but not tight.
  • Elevate the joint above the level of the heart to reduce swelling.

Medication such as steroids, paracetamol or ibuprofen may help. Sometimes your doctor may inject steroids into the joint and remove some of the fluid.

If you have long term joint pain and swelling, see your doctor. They will provide a plan of treatment, including exercise and appropriate medicines. The best types of exercises are gentle to your joints — they include swimming, aqua aerobics, tai chi, cycling or walking.

If the problem is caused by an infection, you may need antibiotics or surgery to drain the area.

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When should I see a doctor?

It’s a good idea to see your doctor if you have joint pain or swelling that starts for no clear reason and lasts for more than a few days, or if the joint is also red and warm.

You may need x-rays, blood tests and perhaps other scans. In some cases, the doctor may want to look inside the joint with an arthroscope.

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Can joint pain and swelling be prevented?

You can help by maintaining a healthy weight, stretching muscles before and after physical exercise and ensuring that your technique during sport is correct.

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Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your joint pain and swelling, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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