Joint Pain

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on June 18, 2024
16 min read

Joints form the connections between bones in places such as your knees, elbows, shoulders, and hips. They provide support and help you move. Any damage to the joints from disease or injury can interfere with your movement and cause pain.

Joint pain can affect any part of your body, from your ankles and feet to your shoulders and hands. The most likely joints to have pain are the:

Pain can affect one or more joints. Some people feel more joint pain in the morning, which improves when they get moving. Others have more pain after they’re active. Often, the pain comes with swelling and inflammation, stiffness, and loss of movement in the joint.


Joint pain is extremely common, especially as you age. More than 53 million Americans have arthritis, and that’s only one possible cause of joint pain. 

A wide range of conditions can lead to painful joints:

  • Osteoarthritis — wear and tear of your joints that happens with age
  • Rheumatoid arthritis — an autoimmune disease that happens when your immune system attacks its own tissues
  • Bursitis — inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that help cushion your joints
  • Gout — a form of arthritis that most often affects your big toe joint
  • Strains, sprains, and other injuries

What causes joint pain all over the body?

Arthritis can cause pain in multiple joints. Fibromyalgia is another chronic condition that causes pain and tender points throughout the body. Body-wide joint pain can also be a symptom of these conditions:

  • Inflammatory forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis and Still's disease
  • Lupus
  • Lyme disease
  • Infections such as rheumatic fever, COVID-19, or the flu
  • Bone cancer
  • Leukemia

What causes multiple joint pain without swelling?

Inflammatory forms of arthritis, injuries, and infections typically cause joint pain with swelling. If you have pain in many joints but no swelling, it could be from osteoarthritis. Another possible cause is joint hypermobility syndrome, which makes your joints more flexible than usual.

Elbow joint pain causes

Injuries, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions are the most likely causes of elbow joint pain. If your elbow hurts, it might be from:

  • A type of arthritis such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or gout
  • A fracture, sprain, tendon tear, or other injury
  • Tendinitis (inflammation in the band of tissue that connects your muscles and bones)
  • Bursitis
  • Lupus (an autoimmune disease)

Why does COVID cause joint pain?

A COVID infection can cause many types of symptoms, including joint pain. In one review of studies, about 2%-65% of people with COVID experienced joint pain 4-12 months after their infection. Researchers don’t know exactly why, but they say COVID inflammation might trigger joint pain.

Another possible reason is that COVID causes an autoimmune-type condition where the immune system attacks the joints. Some people have developed inflammatory arthritis after a COVID infection.

Can menopause cause aching joints?

By some estimates, more than half of women have joint pain during menopause. Researchers have long suspected that estrogen plays a role in autoimmune joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis because these conditions are much more common in people assigned female at birth than in those assigned male at birth. The theory is that when estrogen levels drop during menopause, it causes joint pain.

Some studies have found that low estrogen increases levels of inflammatory proteins that contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, but other studies haven’t shown the same results. Experts say that overall, there isn’t enough evidence to prove that a lack of estrogen causes joint pain.

Does dehydration cause joint pain?

Not drinking enough water and other fluids won’t cause joint pain. But water is an important part of synovial fluid, the lubricant that reduces friction in joints and helps them move smoothly. Fluid also makes tissues more flexible and elastic, which helps prevent joint injuries.

How joint pain feels depends on the cause. The pain could be achy, stiff, sharp, or sore. Your joints may burn or throb. There could be a grating sensation when you move the affected joint.

Pain isn’t the only symptom that happens with joint injuries and disease. Along with pain, you might have:

  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Trouble bending or straightening the joint
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Warmth
  • Loss of movement

Joint pain and weakness

Some of the same conditions that cause pain also weaken joints. Infections such as the flu or Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, a sprain or other injury, and rheumatoid arthritis can cause joint pain and weakness. People with joint hypermobility syndrome have pain, stiffness, and weakness in the joints.

Joint pain and fever

When these two symptoms happen together, here are some of the conditions that might be to blame:

  • Infections such as Epstein-Barr virus, parvovirus, staph, or tuberculosis
  • Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, or Sjӧgren’s syndrome
  • Reactive arthritis, which is joint pain from an infection
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Gout
  • Thyroid disease

Cracking sound in joints

Though cracking in a joint might sound scary, usually it’s nothing to worry about. The most common cause is gas releasing from the joint as you move it. The sound could also result from ligaments and tendons moving across each other. As you get older, a few creaks and cracks are normal as the cushioning cartilage between your joints wears away and bones rub together.

You can feel pain in any joint, including your knees, hips, shoulders, fingers, and toes. The pain may only be in one joint at a time, or in more than one joint.

Hip joint pain

This pain is centered in the joint where your thigh bone connects to your pelvis. Hip pain can be from arthritis, a fall or other injury, bursitis, or a problem with the structure of your hip.

Depending on what’s causing the pain, you might feel it inside your hip or closer to the surface. Sometimes hip pain radiates, meaning that it spreads to places such as your lower back. You might only feel hip pain when you walk, or at night when you lie on the sore joint.

Finger joint pain

Pain in the finger joints may be from arthritis, especially if you have swelling and stiffness too. Injuries to the finger, such as sprains, strains, and mallet finger are other common causes. The finger might feel stiff, sore, throbbing, or achy, depending on the cause.

Knee joint pain

Your knees support a lot of your weight. That’s why these joints are so easy to injure. The resulting pain can disrupt your daily activities. Depending on the cause, you might feel the pain deep inside or on the surface of your knee. The pain might only be on one side or in the back of your knee. Or you could feel it all over the joint.

Like other kinds of joint pain, knee pain can come and go. It may hurt worse in the morning because you’re stiff. Or it might be more painful at night, especially if you were on your feet a lot during the day. 

Shoulder joint pain

In most cases of shoulder joint pain, the cause is: 

  • Tendon inflammation such as bursitis or tendinitis
  • A tendon tear
  • Arthritis
  • Fracture

Along with pain, you may have swelling, stiffness, weakness, and reduced movement in your shoulder. These problems could make it hard to lift your arms to brush your hair or put on clothes. Arthritis can also cause a grinding, popping, or cracking sound in the joint. If your shoulder pain results from a fracture, the pain could be sharp and you may see bruises on the shoulder.

Joint pain in the big toe

Pain in your big toe is often from arthritis. Hallux rigidus is a type of arthritis that affects the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint. This joint is at the bottom of your big toe where it attaches to your foot. Hallux rigidus causes pain, stiffness, and swelling in your big toe. You’ll feel the pain on top of your toe or inside it. You might also have a bony bump on top of your toe. Walking or wearing ill-fitting shoes can make the pain worse.

Gout is another form of arthritis that affects your big toe. The pain may be intense when a gout attack starts, but it should lessen in about 12 hours. Joints affected by gout are often swollen, tender, red, warm, and hard to move.

What is sternoclavicular joint pain?

The sternoclavicular (SC) joint is part of your shoulder joint. It sits in the place where your collarbone and breastbone meet. Pain in this joint isn’t common. When it hurts, the pain is usually due to wear-and-tear arthritis or an injury such as a sprain, fracture, or dislocation. Injuries to this joint can happen if you’ve had a hard hit, such as from a car accident or a football tackle.

You’ll feel SC joint pain in the front of your chest just below your neck. Pain from an injury tends to be sharper and there may be bruises on your chest. Arthritis causes swelling, tenderness, and trouble moving the joint. With arthritis, you may also have pain in other joints.

If joint pain affects your daily activities, or if you have symptoms such as swelling, redness, warmth, and a fever with it, visit your doctor.

Your doctor will ask questions such as: 

  • Where do you feel the pain?
  • What do you think might have caused it?
  • When did it start?
  • What does the pain feel like?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

Then, your doctor will examine the joint to see if it hurts when you move or if you have a reduced range of motion. You may need X-rays or other imaging tests such as MRI or CT scans to look for damage in the bones and tissues of your joint. Your doctor may do a blood test or remove fluid from the joint to check for arthritis, infections, and other conditions that cause joint pain.

Joint pain can range from mild to severe. Acute pain lasts only a few weeks, while chronic joint pain can last months or longer. Even short-term pain and swelling in the joints can have negative effects on your quality of life. Whatever the cause of joint pain, you can usually manage it with medication, physical therapy, or alternative treatments. Treatment options include:

Joint pain medicine

For moderate-to-severe joint pain with swelling, an over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as aspirin, celecoxib (Celebrex), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve) can offer relief. NSAIDs can cause side effects, possibly increasing your risk for stomach ulcers and heart problems.

If you have mild pain without any swelling, acetaminophen may help. Be careful when taking this medicine though, especially if you drink alcohol. High doses may cause liver damage. Check with your doctor before taking these medicines if you’ve had a kidney or liver problem or stomach ulcers.

Other drugs that may help relieve pain include: 

The CDC doesn’t recommend opioid medication for joint pain because of the potential for addiction and abuse. Opioid drugs also cause side effects such as drowsiness and constipation. Non-opioid pain relievers such as NSAIDs, acetaminophen, anti-seizure drugs, and antidepressants work better for joint pain. Opioids should only be a last resort when no other treatment has helped. Even then, your doctor should prescribe the lowest possible dose needed to control your pain.

Joint pain relief cream

Other medicines come as creams or gels that you rub onto the skin over painful joints. These include:

Capsaicin. This substance from chili peppers blocks chemicals that transmit pain signals, creating a feeling of warmth on the skin. Side effects of capsaicin cream include burning or stinging in the area where you apply it.

Topical NSAIDs. These medicines work in the same way as NSAID pills, but they’re less likely to cause side effects such as stomach upset and heart problems.

Salicylates. Products like Aspercreme and Bengay contain methyl salicylate, a pain-relieving ingredient.

Lidocaine. Creams, gels, sprays, and patches containing the anesthetic lidocaine numb the painful area.

Counterirritants. Products such as Icy Hot and Biofreeze distract you from the pain by making your skin feel cold or warm.

Joint pain injections

If you don't find joint pain relief from oral or topical medications, your doctor may suggest injections such as:

Corticosteroids. The doctor can inject a steroid medication, sometimes combined with a local anesthetic, directly into the joint once every 3 to 4 months. A steroid injection can ease pain for 1-3 months, but getting too many of these shots could further damage cartilage, ligaments, and tendons in the joint.

Hyaluronic acid. This substance replaces the natural fluid that lubricates your joints. Most people get one injection every 3-5 weeks. Hyaluronic acid injections ease pain and stiffness with fewer side effects than corticosteroids. This treatment works best for osteoarthritis.

Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy. PRP is a substance your doctor makes by condensing plasma and proteins from your blood. These substances reduce the inflammation that causes joint pain and stiffness. They may also boost healing in the damaged joint. PRP might help with arthritis pain and stiffness for short periods, but doctors still don’t know its long-term effects. Plus, this treatment is very expensive and insurance doesn’t usually cover the cost.

Prolotherapy. In this treatment, the doctor injects an irritant such as a sugar solution into joints, ligaments, and tendons to stimulate healing. You may need 15-20 shots a month for 3 to 4 months. While prolotherapy may offer short-term relief from pain and stiffness, doctors don’t know its long-term effects. 

Autologous conditioned serum. Like PRP, this serum comes from your own blood, which is concentrated to increase the amount of anti-inflammatory substances. Then your doctor injects the serum into your affected joint(s). Autologous conditioned serum seems to work best for easing moderate arthritis symptoms. It may not help with more severe joint damage.

Joint aspiration. Instead of adding fluid to your joint, this treatment removes excess fluid to relieve pressure and swelling. The knee is the most common site for aspiration, but doctors use it for other joints, too. Relieving pressure may help with pain and stiffness, too.


Surgery could be an option if treatments such as medication, physical therapy, and injections haven’t helped or if you have an injury to the joint. These are some of the surgical techniques doctors use to relieve joint pain:

Arthroscopy. Your surgeon performs this procedure through very small incisions. Arthroscopic surgery can fix damaged cartilage and ligaments in the joint.

Joint replacement or resurfacing. In a total joint replacement, your surgeon removes the whole damaged joint and replaces it with moving parts made from metal, plastic, and/or ceramics. This procedure offers long-term relief from joint pain and stiffness. Joint resurfacing removes and replaces only part of the affected joint.

Osteotomy. During this procedure, the surgeon cuts the damaged bone and puts it into better alignment.

Synovectomy. This procedure removes inflamed parts of the synovium (the lining of the joint) that are damaging nearby cartilage. Surgeons perform synovectomy through either open surgery or arthroscopy. This procedure helps slow joint damage and ease pain and stiffness from arthritis, but the synovium can eventually grow back and cause symptoms again.

Joint fusion. This procedure fuses together severely damaged joints in the spine, ankle, wrist, or finger. The surgeon connects two or more bones with rods, pins, or plates. Over time, the bones fuse to hold the joint in place and make it more stable. Joint fusion surgery is a last resort when other treatments haven’t helped because it can severely restrict movement in the affected joint.

Physical therapy

A physical therapist can help you strengthen the muscles around the joint, stabilize the joint, and improve your range of motion. The therapist will teach you strength and flexibility exercises to do at home. 

Physical therapy sessions also include techniques such as:

  • Ultrasound 
  • Heat or cold therapy
  • Electrical nerve stimulation
  • Manipulation 

Your physical therapist may also recommend assistive devices such as knee braces, shoe inserts, or a walker and show you how to use them. 

Alternative joint pain treatment

Joint pain doesn’t always need treatment with medicine. Some natural therapies have also shown promise for easing discomfort. They include:

Acupuncture. In this form of traditional Chinese medicine, an acupuncturist inserts very thin needles into various pressure points around your body. Doing so stimulates blood flow and the release of natural painkillers. Research finds acupuncture helpful for knee osteoarthritis but not for hip osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Exercise. Exercise is an effective way to lose weight, which can ease pressure on painful joints. It also improves flexibility and range of motion in joints. Just be careful to stick to low-impact exercises that won't further irritate the joint. Swimming, bicycling, and tai chi are among the best exercises because they exercise your joints without putting too much pressure on them. 

How to treat postpartum joint pain

Joint pain after you have a baby can happen because of hormone changes or from strain on the muscles due to pregnancy weight gain. You can manage postpartum joint pain with ibuprofen, and by holding a heating pad to sore joints.

You can ease short-term joint pain with a few simple techniques at home:

  • Protect the joint with a brace or wrap.
  • Rest the joint by avoiding any activities that cause you pain.
  • Ice the joint for about 15 minutes, several times each day.
  • Compress the joint using an elastic wrap.
  • Raise the joint above the level of your heart.

Applying ice to your painful joints can ease pain and inflammation. For tight muscles around joints, try using a heating pad or wrap several times a day. Your doctor may recommend that you tape or splint the joint to minimize movement or reduce pain. Just avoid keeping the joint still for too long because it can become stiff and lose function.

Joint pain supplements

Glucosamine and chondroitin are components of the healthy cartilage, which normally cushions the bones and protects joints. Some research shows that glucosamine and chondroitin supplements can improve pain from knee, hip, and hand arthritis. These supplements come in capsule, tablet, powder, or liquid form. 

Although glucosamine and chondroitin don’t work for everyone, they are safe to try because they don't have any major side effects. Even so, talk to your doctor before using these supplements if you have diabetes, you take a blood thinner such as warfarin (Coumadin), or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Glucosamine and chondroitin can raise blood sugar and increase bleeding risk. Doctors don’t know how safe this supplement is for pregnant or nursing mothers.

Making the following changes to your daily routine could help ease joint pain:

  • Hold ice to the joint after an injury or to bring down swelling in the joint.
  • To ease soreness and stiffness, try moist heat from a warm wet washcloth, heating pad, or warm shower or bath.
  • Set aside a few minutes each day to gently stretch sore joints and move them through their range of motion. Ask a physical therapist or trainer which exercises are best for your type of pain.
  • Use a brace or splint to take pressure off the painful joint.

Supportive aids

A few products you can buy at the drugstore, online, or through your doctor’s office can support your joints and help you move them more easily. These include:

  • Braces
  • Splints
  • A cane or walker
  • Orthotic shoe inserts

Your doctor or physical therapist can help you choose the right device and teach you how to use it.

Call your doctor if joint pain bothers you or interferes with your daily activities. Also, if you’ve tried pain relievers, exercise, and other at-home treatments and they haven’t helped, do call your doctor.

No matter what treatment you’re on, get medical help right away if: 

  • The pain becomes intense.
  • Your joint suddenly looks inflamed or deformed.
  • You can’t walk or use the joint at all.
  • You have a fever or you’ve lost 10 pounds or more.

Joint pain is very common, affecting millions of Americans. Arthritis, joint injuries, and bursitis are some of the most common causes. Often, you can manage joint pain at home with over-the-counter pain relievers, exercise, ice, and heat. But if these treatments don’t help and joint pain affects your daily life, see your doctor for treatment recommendations.

What is the reason for joint pain?

Often, joint pain is due to arthritis or an injury. Some infections and body-wide conditions, such as fibromyalgia or Lyme disease, also cause joint pain. Your doctor can examine you and do tests to find out what’s causing your pain.

When should I worry about joint pain?

Call your doctor if the affected joint is warm to the touch, you have a fever, or you can’t move the joint or walk.

How can I reduce joint pain?

You might start with conservative treatments such as NSAID pain relievers and physical therapy. If those therapies don’t work, your doctor might recommend joint injections. Surgery is usually the last option when other treatments haven’t helped.

What deficiency causes joint pain?

There may be a link between vitamin D deficiency and joint pain. Your body needs this vitamin to absorb calcium, keep your bones strong, and control inflammation. Experts recommend getting at least 600 to 800 international units of vitamin D daily from foods and supplements (if you need them).