Why Do Your Joints Hurt?

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on September 10, 2022
4 min read

You use your joints every time you move. But you probably don't think much about them -- until they hurt. Not only is joint pain uncomfortable, it can get in the way of your daily routine.

Your joint pain might be mild. It may only hurt a little, and when you move a certain way. Or it could be more serious, and make almost every motion painful. It might go away after a few weeks, or last for months or longer.

Either way, it’s important to treat the cause so it doesn’t affect your quality of life.

Joint pain is common, especially as you get older. Lots of different conditions can cause it. Sometimes, it might feel like your joints are hurting, but the pain is really coming from nearby muscles or tendons.

Some conditions that often bring joint pain include:

Osteoarthritis. This widespread type of arthritis most often affects your knees, hands, and hips, but can happen in any joint. It starts gradually, and happens most often to people who are middle-aged or older. Along with pain, it may cause:

  • Swollen joints
  • Stiffness, especially when you start moving again after sleeping or sitting
  • A clicking noise when you move
  • Decreased ability to move the joint

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is a long-lasting autoimmune disease, in which your immune system attacks healthy parts of your body by mistake. Joint pain often starts in your hands, wrists, feet, and knees, but may spread to other areas over time. It tends to affect the same joint on each side of your body (such as both knees) at the same time. Middle-aged people get it most often, but it can happen at any age. Besides joint pain, other symptoms can include:

  • Swollen joints
  • Stiffness, especially after you've been inactive
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Weight loss

Injury. You may feel pain in or around your joints when you have a fracture, sprain, strain, or dislocation. These injuries may happen suddenly, during an accident or fall. But sometimes they're caused by overuse, such as runner's knee.

Also, an injury like a torn ligament or knee fracture can cause bleeding into a joint (hemarthrosis). You may notice inflammation, warmth, stiffness, or bruising in the injured area.

If you recently hurt a joint and it suddenly starts hurting again, you could have inflammation in the joint lining. That's the thin layer of tissue around your joints. This condition, called traumatic synovitis, usually doesn't cause redness or heat.

Bursitis. You get bursitis when your bursae, fluid-filled sacs that help cushion your joints, become inflamed. Bursitis usually affects your shoulder, knee, elbow, or hip. It tends to happen when you make a movement over and over again, like throwing a baseball or kneeling to scrub floors.

If you have bursitis, your joint may also hurt more when you move or press on it.

Viral infections. Some infections can cause joint pain and swelling. Among them are parvovirus, which causes fifth disease in children. Other viruses that may cause joint pain include rubella (German measles), HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. These viruses sometimes give you a fever as well as joint pain.

Tendinitis. You can get tendinitis when you overuse or injure a tendon, the thick cords that connect your muscles and bones. It happens most often in your shoulder, heel, or elbow. (Tennis elbow is a type of tendinitis.) You may notice dull pain when you move the joint, along with tenderness and some swelling.

Gout or pseudogout. Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that results when crystals from your body build up in a joint. It usually affects one joint at a time, most often your big toe. Its symptoms start suddenly and intensely, but tend to come and go. They include:

  • Intense pain and tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Heat

Pseudogout is also caused by crystal deposits, and has very similar symptoms. But it most often happens in your knees.

Usually, joint pain is not an emergency. You can treat mild pain with over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.

Or, try hot or cold therapy. Put an ice pack on the painful joint a few times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. Use a heating pad or soak in warm water to help you relax.

If your joint pain lasts 3 days or more, or happens several times within a month, make an appointment with your doctor. Also make an appointment if you notice any of these signs around your joints:

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Warmth
  • Redness

See a doctor right away if you have:

  • Intense joint pain
  • Deformities around your joint
  • Sudden swelling
  • Trouble using the joint

Once you and your doctor figure out what's making your joints hurt, you can come up with a treatment plan together. Most joint pain can be managed with the right treatment, ranging from medication to lifestyle changes.