Fact: Joint pain is incredibly frustrating—especially when your aching hip, knee, or shoulder makes even the smallest of movements excruciating or uncomfortable. There’s a long list of possible reasons for achy joints, ranging from the easily-fixed to the more complicated. Below are some of the most common, along with tips for reducing the level of pain you’re in.
You Like to Run—a LOT
Training for another race and noticing a nagging knee? You may be pounding your way to pain. “As a practitioner, I see a lot of people who exercise for fun—particularly runners—with knee pain,” says Robert Hayden, D.C., Ph.D., a chiropractor in Griffin, Georgia.
Hitting the pavement hard can put a whole lot of stress on your knee joints. Running on hard concrete surfaces can be especially damaging to cartilage over time, says Carol Michaels, fitness expert and owner of Recovery Fitness in West, Orange New Jersey. (Cartilage is the flexible tissue in your joints that helps prevent friction between the bones when you move.)
The good news is that many people are able to start running again after resting and strengthening the affected joint, says Michaels. A chiropractor or physical therapist may be able to help you come up with a stretching and strength-training plan to help you recover and avoid joint pain in the future.
That being said, if a doctor determines you have serious knee damage (or serious damage to another joint), you may need to switch up your exercise routine to prevent further damage, says Hayden. Low impact cardio —like brisk walking —puts far less stress on your body and may be a necessary alternative if you’ve literally run your joints into the ground, he says.
You Sprained Your Ankle
One klutzy moment that involves tripping over a curb (or nothing at all) can result in a sprain that lasts longer than your embarrassment will. When you twist or fall on an ankle, you can stretch or damage the ligament (tissue connecting two or more bones at a joint), says Hayden. According to the National Institute of Health, the telltale signs of a sprain are pain, swelling, bruising, and the inability to move the affected joint.
To treat a mild sprain, the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society advises following the R.I.C.E. guidelines: Rest your ankle by not walking on it; ice your ankle to shrink swelling; compress your ankle to control swelling; and elevate your foot by keeping it propped up above your heart. If your injury lasts more than a few days, your doc may need to put you in a cast or boot until it’s healed, says Hayden.
Your Routine Is the Same Day in and Day Out
Many of us sit on our butts in front of a computer for hours at a time every day (#officelife)—and that can have some nasty consequences on our joints. According to the Mayo Clinic, sitting for prolonged periods of time—especially on hard surfaces—can lead to a condition called bursitis.
This painful condition occurs when the bursae (fluid-filled cushioning sacs in between joints) become inflamed, typically from repeated activity, says Michaels. It’s usually seen in the shoulder, elbow, or hip. Common symptoms include aches, stiffness, swelling, redness, and sensitivity to the touch.
Michaels suggests seeing an exercise specialist or physical therapist who can help show you stretching and strengthening exercises to relieve some of the pressure on the affected joints. In addition to physical therapy, cushioning the affected area may help relieve discomfort.
You Have Osteoarthritis
One of the most common culprits of joint pain is arthritis—in fact, more than 50 million Americans have some form of it, according to the Arthritis Foundation. While there are a many different kinds of arthritis, osteoarthritis, (caused by the wearing away of cartilage) is the most prevalent. Apart from joint pain, osteoarthritis also often involves tenderness, stiffness, and loss of flexibility.
Osteoarthritis can generally be managed by your primary care physician, says Lynn M. Ludmer, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist and internal medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Meds can help ease the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis, but exercise can play a crucial role in addressing the condition. “There’s a misconception that people should stop moving if they have pain,” says Ludmer. “But it’s important for people with arthritis to exercise, and walking or swimming can be particularly beneficial.”
The slow, controlled movements and low-impact of tai chi make it another good option for those with osteoarthritis, suggests Michaels. Ludmer adds that complementary therapies like acupuncture may also help.
You Have an Autoimmune Disease
Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory form of arthritis, is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your joints, wearing them down over time. It can also cause damage to other organs and systems in your body. You may notice tender, warm, and swollen joints along with stiffness, fatigue, and possibly weight loss.No one knows for sure what causes autoimmune disorders, but age and genetics may be involved.
Since the autoimmune aspects of arthritis can affect more than just your joints, Ludmer urges the importance of being carefully monitored and treated by your doc if diagnosed. Treatments may include taking immune-suppressing medication.
The more pounds you’re carrying, the more pressure you’re putting on your joints. You may notice trouble with your knees in particular. “Every pound you lose can relieve five pounds of pressure off your knees,” says Michaels.
Of course, losing weight is easier said than done. Incorporating fitness into your daily routine as and being mindful about what you eat are good first steps, says Hayden. Michaels suggests starting off with gentle exercises like walking, bicycling, and swimming if you’re dealing with joint pain.
You Chow Down on a Ton of Meat
Ludmer says that gout—another inflammatory form of arthritis—can also cause joint pain, particularly in your feet. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms, which include intense pain in your big toe (and possibly in the rest of your feet, ankles, knees, hands, and wrists), redness, swelling, and limited mobility, usually strike suddenly—and can stick around for days. The majority of people who experience gout for the first time will have another flare-up within a year, according to The Arthritis Foundation.
The condition occurs as a result of too-high levels of uric acid in your blood, explains Hayden. Eating tons of meat and seafood, guzzling drinks high in fructose, and going a little too hard on the booze can all up your levels.
The excess uric acid then forms crystals in your joints, which cause the sudden, severe episodes of pain. Lab tests can determine your uric acid levels, while your doc might recommend pain relievers as well dietary changes to help relieve your symptoms.