If you’re active, no doubt you’ve encountered some form of joint pain.
Pain in a joint can be unsettling - It’s different from those usual aches and pains in the muscles, and seems to set off more alarm bells so to speak than the usual aches and pains.
As an athlete, you understand the importance of knowing your body well enough to know when you can work through some discomfort, or when you should stop to prevent further injury or damage. But every now and then, an odd sensation from a joint can throw this understanding off, leaving you unsure what to do.
We can classify joint pain into some fairly broad categories as follows:
Joint pain or stiffness in the morning is very typical of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis, or OA, is caused by a wearing out or thinning of cartilage. Cartilage is the protective layer of tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint. When this tissue becomes thin, the bones are in close contact with each other and this causes pain.
The pain of OA lessens as a person gets up and moves around, although it can worsen with activities that stress the joints — it all depends on the severity of the condition in each person.
OA typically affects people starting in their 40’s and 50’s and is typically first noticed in the thumbs and fingers before other joints become affected. The hips, knees, shoulders and low back are commonly affected making movement difficult.
Swollen joints that are red and warm can be the sign of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system attacks joint cartilage. RA can begin at any age, and affects women nearly 5 times more than men. RA can begin subtly, or seem to appear overnight. New research is looking at infectious causes stemming from leaky gut, a topic we’ll address in more depth in the future.
A single joint that is swollen, warm or red may indicate an infection in the joint. This can be an emergency, as a joint infection can quickly spread throughout the body leading to very serious complications.
Large joints like the knees or hips are most commonly affected. Septic arthritis is typically caused by bacteria that has traveled through the bloodstream and settled in a joint; septic arthritis usually only affects a single joint, but several can become infected as well. Open wounds or surgical procedures are other common causes.
On the lighter side of things, swelling (without heat or redness) in joint is very common. Swelling is caused by fluid accumulation in the joint capsule and is the body’s way of protecting the joint. Our joints don’t really have their own blood supply, so when they’re injured or irritated the body responds by filling them with fluid.
A joint that swells after a long run or other workout may indicate an injury like torn cartilage or just too much work for the joint. If this happens to you, it’s time to rest and let the joint recover. If it happens repeatedly, it will be worth getting some imaging done (X-ray or MRI) to see if there’s damage inside the joint like torn cartilage, which is very common.
Pain is different from an ache. Aches are something that come and go, and are usually something you’ve experienced many times. Pain, however is well…painful! And pain is never a good thing, as this means something is wrong and pain is your brain’s way of telling you this.
Sharp pains in a joint may indicate torn cartilage. Sometimes a bit of swelling will distort the joint in a way that sharp pains are the result. Regardless of the cause, sharp pains coming from a joint mean you should stop exercising until you see someone to determine the cause.
Not a pain, but snapping noises coming from a joint can cause many people to be alarmed about the state of their joints. Audible “snapping” and “popping” are caused by the normal movement of tendons or ligaments across the joint surface. This rarely indicates a problem, especially if it occurs without pain.
Addressing the different types of joint pain is important because joint tissues are susceptible to injury and can take a long time to heal. If you’re experiencing joint pain, diagnosing the cause is the first order of business.
That being said, the source of pain is often illusive. Our next blogs will address how you can support the joint tissues naturally, prolong the health of your cartilage, and avoid unnecessary surgery.