What Is Joint Inflammation?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
August 30, 2017

Joint inflammation occurs when fluid accumulates in the soft tissues that surround and cushion your joints. Over time, it can cause you a lot of pain.

Joint inflammation is often characterized by swelling, warmth, pain, and redness. Sometimes the pain or stiffness can be so unbearable that moving becomes difficult. Understanding the symptoms and getting a diagnosis from your physician can offer some relief.

The most common cause of inflammation of the joints is arthritis. Swelling of the joints can also be caused by other chronic conditions, illnesses, or acute injuries.


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Scott Walker, MD, at Gunnison Valley Hospital in Utah, explains that people tend to categorize chronic inflammation as bad and acute inflammation as good because chronic lasts a lot longer than acute inflammation. “Either way, inflammation is the body’s natural response to a problem,” he said. “It makes us aware of issues that we might not otherwise acknowledge.”

What people should focus on, according to Walker, is what the symptoms are and how long the pain lasts. Once you share that information with your doctor, she’ll be better able to make a diagnosis. You should be able to tell your doctor when the joint pain started, where it has occurred, how severe (on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most painful), if anything makes the pain better or worse, and if you have any other symptoms.

What does your inflammation mean?

Let your doctor know if the joint swelling occurred after an injury. If that’s the case, and nothing is torn or broken, you may be able to treat it at home using an ice pack placed on the area to bring down the swelling. Other at home treatments can include applying compression to the joint using an elastic bandage, elevating the joint, or taking over-the-counter pain medication.

If your joint inflammation is not injury-related, you may have arthritis. Pain from arthritis can be on-going, or it can come and go. It can occur while you’re resting or when you’re moving. It can also appear in one part of your body or in multiple joints.

According to Walker, pain that starts first thing in morning and lasts longer than an hour is often diagnosed as osteoarthritis. Swelling that lasts a day or longer and having difficulty moving can also be diagnosed as arthritis.

How to reduce joint inflammation

Treating joint inflammation can include over-the-counter medicines, prescription medicines, a change in your diet, and exercise. If the pain is short-term, you can apply hot or cold compresses to the area for 20 minutes. Cold reduces swelling and can numb the pain. Heat relaxes muscles and can increase circulation in some areas. Talk to your doctor about which you should use for your arthritis pain.

If the pain is mild, over-the-counter pain relievers may soothe the aches. Your doctor may prescribe ibuprophen (Tylenol), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS; these drugs are used to reduce inflammation and pain.

Corticosteroids are another type of drugs that are prescribed to fight inflammation of the joints; occasional injections have been known to reduce swelling associated with arthritis.

Most doctors will recommend that you lose weight if you’re obese. Being overweight puts stress on your joints, said Richard F. Loeser, Jr., MD, of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

You might hear that an anti-inflammatory diet is the way to go. “However,” said Lisa Cimperman, a dietitian at University Hospitals in Cleveland, “eating antioxidant-rich foods and limiting processed foods is something that everyone should do because it’s healthy.”

She isn’t sold on an anti-inflammatory diet. “We’re not at the point yet that we can say that diet directly modifies the inflammatory process.”

Talk to your doctor about your diet, medications, and exercise. He might also suggest walking, swimming, yoga, physical therapy, or tai chi to ease inflammation of the joints.


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March 18, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA