Aching Joints: Causes and Treatments 

When your joints ache, you might say you did too much exercise the day before, or you might say you're just "getting old." But often joints ache for reasons that can be helped after an evaluation from a doctor. There are many different causes of joint pain - some are mild, and some are severe.

Your joints are made up of bones, ligaments, cartilage and more. Any area that is at the connection of two bones, such as your knee or your elbow, is called a joint. Joints provide support to the bones and the body, and they help you move easily. When there is a problem with your joints, your entire range of movement is compromised. There can also be pain, either a little or a lot, depending upon the problem. Understanding the common causes of aching joints can help you figure out how to best treat the issue.

Causes of Aching Joints

There can be many causes for joint pain. Sometimes you can pinpoint the problem immediately, such as a pulled ligament after exercise. But other aching joint issues start out slow and mild and get worse over time. Here are some things that might cause the pain.

1. Most Common Causes

Among all the possible causes for joint pain, these are the most common among the general population, but especially among those who are older.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis. This is an inflammatory disease that affects the joints. It can lead to swelling of the joint, stiffness, loss of movement, pain and in some cases, deformity of the joint. It often occurs on both sides of the body, not just one place. This applies to about one percent of the U.S. population, or 2.1 million people.
  • Osteoarthritis. This is the most common form of arthritis and causes aching joints for over 20 million people. This occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints begins to break down. Over time, the cartilage can wear away completely, leaving a bone-on-bone joint that can be very painful to move. This might be accompanied by bone spurs in the joint as the body attempts to cushion the area. It often happens in the spine, hands, knees and hips.

2. Other Possible Causes

There could be other reasons for your joint pain. Sometimes it is genetic, or caused by a previous injury to the joint. Lack of exercise - or too much exercise - can both lead to joint pain. Other causes include simple wear and tear from sports, diseases such as lupus or cancer, a lack of a balanced diet, chronic dehydration, weight gain or weight loss, hormonal imbalances, stress, infections, or even incorrect posture.

Diagnosis of Aching Joints

If you are feeling pain in your joints, swelling or tenderness of the area, a sound of bone on bone, or stiffness after getting out of bed, it is time to get a diagnosis from a doctor. In order to diagnose what is causing aching joints, your doctor might order several tests, including x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, blood tests and more. Your doctor will take a full clinical history of your symptoms and your general health, as well as a physical exam.

Treatments for Aching Joints

There are many treatments that can help with joint pain. These treatments might be simple, or they might be complex, depending upon the reason for the pain. Here are the most common treatments you might use for relief of joint pain.

  1. Medications. In some cases, you will need to take medications for pain, as well as medications that might reduce swelling or other symptoms of aching joints. These medications are tailored to your situation based on what your specific problem might be. Often these can be a combination of prescription medications, such as muscle relaxants or anti-depressant drugs, and over the counter pain relief, such as ibuprofen or Tylenol.
  2. Topical Agents. There are many topical creams that can both soothe the area and reduce swelling or pain. Look for medications that contain capsaicin, a topical relief agent derived from peppers. Many of these are available over the counter, but stronger formulations might be available through your doctor.
  3. Injections. For more serious issues with aching joints, injections of steroids can relieve the pain and the problem, at least for a while. Some patients might find that these injections can help a great deal in the short term, while they decide what further treatments might be best. Your doctor might also be able to draw fluid from the joint with a needle, thus lessening your pain and making your joints move easier.
  4. Physical Therapy. Exercise under the guidance of a trained physical therapist can help ensure that your joints are getting the proper movement they need to heal. This might include the use of ultrasound, heat and cold therapy, manipulation of the joint and electrical nerve stimulation. Physical therapy might take only a few weeks or several months, depending upon the severity of the problem.
  5. Weight Control and Exercises. Sometimes aching joints can be relieved by losing weight, which then reduces the pressure the joints have to endure. Exercise can also provide a great benefit by strengthening the areas around the joints. Exercises such as swimming are great, as the buoyancy takes pressure off your joints.
  6. Joint Care. If your pain is mild and short term, you can take care of your joints at home to get some relief. Therapies include wrapping the joints with a bandage or brace, applying cold and hot therapy, compressing the joint, elevating it, and resting the area until you are feeling better.
  7. Supplements. Some supplements, such as glucosamine or chondroitin, can help build the cartilage back up. Since they don't have significant side effects, they are safe to try, but keep in mind that they might not work for everyone.

If you have aching joints with the addition of swelling, redness, tenderness and warmth around the joint, it's time to see a doctor. Get to the doctor immediately if the pain and swelling is sudden, you experience a loss of function or the joint becomes deformed.