Joint pain


The symptoms often start in the morning when you get up: Joint pain, known as arthralgia, can be distressing and make everyday life a misery. It is little consolation that a large number of other people also suffer from painful joints. Arthralgias arise for many different reasons. Joint pain can be caused by the menopause, but also by rheumatic diseases, medication, a viral infection, joint inflammation or something else. Targeted treatment of arthralgia can usually make the agonizing pain in the joints bearable or even make it disappear.

Overview: What is joint pain?

Painful joints are one of the most common reasons for visits to the doctor. Whether finger joint pain, shoulder joint pain, knee joint pain or joint and muscle pain all over the body: there is hardly a movable joint between the bones that cannot be affected by arthralgia. Either as a single joint or in the form of several painful joints. The severity ranges from mild symptoms to severe restrictions.

If joint pain lasts less than six weeks, it is acute arthralgia; if the joints hurt for longer, the condition is chronic.

Women and men in the second half of life are particularly affected by arthralgia, but they are by no means the only ones. It is not known exactly how many sufferers there are in total. However, more than one million people in Switzerland suffer from arthritis or arthrosis alone, both of which are accompanied by joint pain. However, the female part of the population carries an additional risk of arthralgia that men are spared: the menopause.

Joint pain: menopause as a risk

“I was actually fine before – but now I suddenly have joint pain all over my body.” When the menopause causes joint pain, it is usually a great burden for the women affected. Whether it’s pain in the knees, shoulders or finger joints, the menopause promotes these unpleasant conditions because the production of the sex hormone oestrogen is reduced during the menopause. A sufficient amount of oestrogen is important to supply the joints with enough fluid and “lubricant”. If this does not happen, the joints can lose mobility, become sore and gradually become stiff.

Arthralgia during the menopause often causes pain in the following joints in particular: the joints of the fingers and hands, the shoulder and knee joints. The symptoms are usually particularly noticeable in the morning and often improve during the course of the day. Because movement helps. But women who are active in sports also experience joint pain during the menopause.

The oestrogen deficiency also has a negative effect on the muscles – they lose strength and elasticity. And the menopause doesn’t just cause muscle and joint pain: fatigue and exhaustion can also occur, as well as the osteoporosis (bone loss) feared by many women. Age-related wear and tear of joints usually plays only a minor role in joint pain – the main cause is the lack of hormones.

Menopause consultation

Symptoms: How does joint pain manifest itself?

Whether only individual joints are affected or joint pain occurs all over the body – doctors distinguish between three different manifestations:

  • “It’s worst in the morning after getting up,” complain many pain patients. Doctors refer to this type of arthralgia as start-up pain.
  • Joint pain can also occur at night. In this case, medicine speaks of rest pain.
  • If pain in the joints only occurs as soon as the affected joint is moved, regardless of the time of day, this is stress pain.

Joints can hurt in different ways and can, for example, sting or burn. There is also pain in joints that appears as a pulsating or dull ache. The more precisely you as a patient can describe your joint pain, the more you can help your doctor to determine the cause of your symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis.

Diagnosis: How do you recognize arthralgia?

An accurate diagnosis of joint pain is important; otherwise an inflammatory or rheumatic cause of the joint pain may be overlooked. This may result in a lack of timely and targeted therapy and permanent damage to the joints.

If you suffer from joint pain and seek medical advice, your doctor will first examine you physically. Close examination and palpation of the affected areas are just as important as the question of whether the painful joint is sensitive to pressure or restricted in its mobility. The medical examination will also clarify in which situation and for how long the joint pain occurs. For example, if there is morning stiffness that lasts longer than half an hour after getting up, a rheumatic disease is suspected.

Depending on the findings in the physical examination, the doctor may recommend further diagnostic tests (blood tests, imaging procedures) for further clarification.

An accurate arthralgia diagnosis is important because there are joint diseases that all manifest themselves as pain but need to be treated differently. This applies, for example, to the following common joint pains:

Joint pain with osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis means joint wear and tear. It is not just the joint cartilage, which acts as a buffer between the bones, that is in a poor condition in osteoarthritis, but the entire joint. This also includes the joint capsule, a layer of mucous membrane (synovium) and joint mucus (synovia). In the worst case, the wear and tear progresses to such an extent that the cartilage is completely degraded. When bone rubs against bone, the joint pain is particularly painful.

The wear and tear of the joint often manifests itself as burning, pulsating or stabbing pain, which can also occur in episodes. Swelling often occurs. Later, stiffening or deformation of the affected joint is also possible.

Osteoarthritis very often affects the knee joints. The joints of the hips and fingers – especially the ball of the thumb – are also frequently affected. During physical activity, there is often a start-up pain at first, which can turn into pain on exertion as movement continues.

Joint pain with arthritis

Arthritis means inflammation of the joints. It affects the joint cartilage and usually manifests itself externally as redness and swelling of the affected joint. Initially, arthritis manifests itself as a stabbing pain that occurs on exertion, later joint pain at rest is also possible.

Possible causes of joint inflammation include injuries, infections, metabolic disorders and rheumatism.

Joint pain with rheumatism

The often used but imprecise term “rheumatism” covers a variety of painful restrictions. The following symptoms are typical of this form of inflammatory joint disease:

  • The greatest joint pain occurs in the morning
  • The basic joints of the fingers are affected
  • Morning stiffness lasts longer than an hour
  • The joint pain improves with movement
  • Those affected find it difficult to clench a fist
  • The affected joints are swollen and sensitive to pressure

Joint pain after corona

Muscle and joint pain are also possible side effects of an infection with the coronavirus. Joint pain often occurs in the shoulder, and knee joint pain is also common. The symptoms can persist long after a corona infection has passed. If they persist for four to twelve weeks or recur during this time, the joint pain and other symptoms are referred to as “long-COVID syndrome”. From a period of twelve weeks, the term “post-COVID” is used.

Causes: How does joint pain develop?

When you’re seventy, you’re no longer seventeen: a certain amount of wear and tear on our joints is a completely normal side effect of getting older. In many cases, doctors therefore refer to joint pain as a “degenerative” phenomenon – i.e. discomfort caused by ageing and wear and tear, as is the case with osteoarthritis.

However, the cause of joint pain can also depend on other factors. In addition to the widespread arthrosis (joint wear and tear) and arthritis (joint inflammation), the following conditions are also possible causes of arthralgia:

  • Metabolic diseases (e.g. gout)
  • Injuries (e.g. bruises)
  • Viral infections (e.g. flu, measles, rubella, chickenpox)
  • Tumor or leukemia
  • Lyme disease after tick bite
  • Side effects of medication

Regardless of what causes joint pain: If you are affected, do not hesitate to consult your doctor. Sometimes arthralgias need to be treated quickly in order to prevent long-term damage to the affected joints in good time.

How is joint pain treated?

Anyone who suffers from arthralgia has one main wish: for the joint pain to disappear soon. And forever. The second wish is often that limited mobility should be restored. Not everyone affected by joint pain seeks medical advice immediately. This is often not necessary, as in many cases joint or limb pain can go away on its own. However, if the symptoms last longer than two weeks or keep recurring, you should definitely consult a doctor.

Anti-inflammatory painkillers often help with acute joint pain, as do rubs or compresses to stimulate circulation. Physical treatments, for example with heat, are also considered successful methods. Physiotherapy with stretching and weight-bearing exercises can also reduce joint pain and improve mobility. Women who experience joint pain during the menopause can benefit from hormone replacement therapy (internationally abbreviated to HRT).

Joint pain: what else helps?

Anyone suffering from arthralgia can do a lot for themselves. Regular sporting activity – for example in the form of swimming or cycling, which is easy on the joints – supports mobility and strengthens the muscles. Strong muscles in turn support the joints.

Risk factors that should be avoided as far as possible are alcohol (can trigger gout) and nicotine (can promote osteoarthritis). Excess weight should definitely be reduced in the case of arthralgia because it puts strain on the joints. A healthy diet helps with this. It also has another advantage: foods that are low in fat and rich in vitamins help to maintain healthy joint cartilage.

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