Most forms of joint pain involve some kind of inflammation — either local or systemic. When injured, a chain of events in your immune system known as the inflammatory cascade is triggered. In a careful balance of give and take, this process starts with pro-inflammatory hormones calling out for white blood cells to clean up damaged tissue and clear out infection. This is what causes the redness, swelling, and pain we often see with injury.
Next, anti-inflammatory compounds take over to heal the area once the threat is diminished. When this process, known as local or acute inflammation, waxes and wanes in response to injury, it’s a sign of a healthy immune system. Yet when the symptoms of inflammation don’t disappear, it tells us that your immune system is unable to turn itself off when it should.
Just as the flame of a burning fire can help or hurt, our body’s internal fire has the dual power to heal and to cause us pain. Think of inflammation like a burner on your gas stove; local injuries and infections cause our bodies to turn the flame up high in the area of the injury, while with systemic or chronic inflammation, our bodies keep the burner on simmer, even when we’re not suffering an injury. This slow burn has been associated with a range of health conditions and degenerative diseases, including asthma, allergies, skin problems, insulin resistance, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and yes, arthritis.
In terms of our joints, pain stemming from an injury or even short-term overuse can set off localized inflammation in the cartilage, tendons, or bursae. As the injury heals, players in your inflammatory cascade will perform their tasks and disappear. If the inflammation persists it can lead to a more chronic condition. Luckily, we now have a few tests that tell us a great deal, and we begin the diagnosis process with a series of questions.
- Is this pain relatively new?
Think back over the past few months or years. If you’ve had a sports injury or trauma, such as an accident or a fall, your pain could be related to that. It’s not at all unusual for joint pain to develop and escalate after the date of the injury itself. Torn ligaments and tendons lack blood flow, so they can’t heal themselves and must be repaired surgically. Sprains can take a long time to repair themselves. With any kind of injury, it’s important to give your body the right nutritional support and enough time to heal.
- Is the pain seasonal or related to changes in the weather?
Complaints of joint pain increase during colder weather because your blood doesn’t circulate to your extremities as well in the colder months. And it doesn’t help that pain receptors are more sensitive in cold weather. A drop in barometric pressure, such as before a rain or snow storm, can also cause any inflamed tissues to expand and become more painful.
- Can you associate the pain with any specific activity?
For instance, do your knees hurt only after a workout? Does your hip give way only after a long drive? Overuse and misalignment are common causes of joint pain, whether from just a day of stress and strain or over a period of years. This kind of mechanical injury can inflame the bursae (causing bursitis), or the tendons (causing tendonitis), or eventually wear down the cartilage and cause osteoarthritis.
- Is it the muscle or the joint?
You may actually be experiencing pain in the muscles close to a joint and think that the joint is the problem. Muscle pain is generally associated with over-exercise or movement that has caused excess strain on the muscle, ligament, or tendon. This kind of pain should resolve itself with two to three days of rest. You might also notice a point of tenderness or “trigger point” on the muscle in this case. Muscle pain may also respond positively to stretching or massage therapy.
- Is your pain worse in the morning?
If your pain lasts for longer than a half hour in the morning and gets better during the day, there is a possibility that it could mean rheumatoid arthritis. Look closely at your sleeping habits and mattress. Changes here may be a simple solution. Eating (or drinking) refined carbohydrates at night may cause fluid retention and morning pain. Changing just this one habit can turn joint pain around — almost overnight.
- What’s going on right now in your life?
Joint pain can be reflective of some aspect of your “inner” life. While it may seem like a big leap to connect emotional stress with joint pain, we have all come to accept the idea that the body stores tension in the muscles, so it shouldn’t be difficult to accept the notion that your emotional life can impact your joints.
- What is your family history?
Some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are connected to genetic makeup, and if anyone in your family has had it, this places you at higher risk — but not the certainty — of developing it.
There are many factors that go into correctly diagnosing the source of joint pain, and the process for reducing or eliminating that pain. Give us a call today at 239-596-0100 if you are experiencing joint pain, because living with pain isn’t really living!
For more information on this subject, call The Zehr Center for Orthopaedics at 239-596-0100 or visit www.zehrcenter.com. The information contained herein is compiled from a variety of sources. It may not be complete or timely. It does not cover all diseases, physical conditions, ailments, or treatments. The information should NOT be used in place of a visit with your healthcare provider, nor should you disregard the advice of your health care provider because of any information you read on this topic.