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Joint swelling

Swelling of a joint

Joint swelling is the buildup of fluid in the soft tissue surrounding the joint.

Considerations

Joint swelling may occur along with joint pain. The swelling may cause the joint to appear larger or abnormally shaped.

Joint swelling can cause pain or stiffness. After an injury, swelling of the joint may mean you have a broken bone or a tear in the muscle tendon or ligament.

Many different types of arthritis may cause swelling, redness, or warmth around the joint.

An infection in the joint can cause swelling, pain, and fever.

Causes

Joint swelling may be caused by different conditions, including:

  • Chronic type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis
  • Painful type of arthritis caused by buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint (gout)
  • Arthritis caused by wear and tear of joints (osteoarthritis)
  • Arthritis caused by buildup of calcium-type crystals in joints (pseudogout)
  • Disorder that involves arthritis and a skin condition called psoriasis (psoriatic arthritis)
  • Group of conditions that involve the joints, eyes, and urinary and genital systems (reactive arthritis)
  • Inflammation of joints, nearby tissues, and sometimes other organs (rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Inflammation of a joint due to an infection (septic arthritis)
  • Disorder in which the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue (systemic lupus erythematosus)

Home Care

For joint swelling after an injury, apply ice packs to reduce pain and swelling. Raise the swollen joint so that it is higher than your heart, if possible. For example, if your ankle is swollen, lay down with pillows comfortably placed under your foot so that your ankle and leg are slightly raised.

If you have arthritis, follow your health care provider's treatment plan.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider right away if you have joint pain and swelling with a fever.

Also call your provider if you have:

  • Unexplained joint swelling
  • Joint swelling after an injury

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will examine you. The joint will be closely examined. You will be asked about your joint swelling, such as when it began, how long it has lasted, and whether you have it all the time or only at certain times. You may also be asked what you have tried at home to relieve the swelling.

Tests to diagnose the cause of joint swelling may include:

Physical therapy for muscle and joint rehabilitation may be recommended.

References

West SG. Systemic diseases in which arthritis is a feature. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 275.

Woolf AD. History and physical examination. In: Hochberg MC, Gravallese EM, Silman AJ, Smolen JS, Weinblatt ME, Weisman MH, eds. Rheumatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 32.

Text only

  • The structure of a joint

    The structure of a joint - illustration

    Joints, particularly hinge joints like the elbow and the knee, are complex structures made up of bone, muscles, synovium, cartilage, and ligaments that are designed to bear weight and move the body through space. The knee consists of the femur (thigh bone) above, and the tibia (shin bone) and fibula below. The kneecap (patella) glides through a shallow groove on the front part of the lower thigh bone. Ligaments and tendons connect the three bones of the knee, which are contained in the joint capsule (synovium) and are cushioned by cartilage.

    The structure of a joint

    illustration

    • The structure of a joint

      The structure of a joint - illustration

      Joints, particularly hinge joints like the elbow and the knee, are complex structures made up of bone, muscles, synovium, cartilage, and ligaments that are designed to bear weight and move the body through space. The knee consists of the femur (thigh bone) above, and the tibia (shin bone) and fibula below. The kneecap (patella) glides through a shallow groove on the front part of the lower thigh bone. Ligaments and tendons connect the three bones of the knee, which are contained in the joint capsule (synovium) and are cushioned by cartilage.

      The structure of a joint

      illustration

    Self Care

     

    Tests for Joint swelling

     
     

    Review Date: 6/28/2018

    Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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