Sudden joint pain can throw a monkey wrench into your fitness routine, work and other daily activities. Causes of acute joint pain differ from those that typically cause more gradually developing discomfort. The broad range of possible culprits include injuries, infections and crystals in the joint fluid, among others. Sudden joint pain may affect one or multiple joints and range from mild to severe.
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Injuries account for many cases of acute joint pain, usually affecting a single large joint such as the knee, ankle, shoulder or elbow. The small joints of the wrist and hand also prove vulnerable to joint-related injuries, which might include ligament and/or cartilage damage, bone fractures or joint dislocation. Pain typically occurs immediately and is characteristically moderate to severe. Swelling, bruising and joint deformity often accompany the pain. You also might feel or hear a pop in the joint. Treatment varies depending on the site and severity of your injury.
Septic arthritis refers to infection of the joint space, usually caused by bacteria. This condition provokes severe pain that develops within hours in a single joint and is often accompanied by fever and redness, swelling and difficulty moving the affected joint. The knee is most frequently involved but the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip and ankle might also be infected. Bacteria can gain entry to the joint directly, such as during surgery or a procedure involving the joint, or travel from elsewhere in the body via the bloodstream. Septic arthritis requires urgent treatment with intravenous antibiotics to prevent permanent joint damage, which can begin within 48 hours.
Certain infections outside of the joints can also cause sudden pain usually involving several joints. Examples include influenza and, less commonly, Lyme disease. Characteristic symptoms that accompany these illnesses usually make the diagnosis relatively straightforward.
Your joints contain a small amount of lubricating fluid. With certain medical conditions, crystals form in the joint fluid causing sudden severe inflammation with joint redness, tenderness and intense pain. Gout is the most common of these conditions, in which uric acid crystals form in the joint fluid. Common sites of gout include the base of the big toe, instep, ankle, knee, wrist and elbow. Other types of crystals, such as those that form with pseudogout or CPPD crystal deposition disease, can cause symptoms similar to gout. Anti-inflammatory medication is used to control joint pain during an attack, and other medications and/or dietary changes are sometimes recommended to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.
Other less common medical conditions can sometimes cause sudden joint pain. People with hemophilia can experience bleeding into one or more joints, leading to sudden pain. This type of bleeding can occur spontaneously or develop after a relatively minor bump or fall. Sickle cell disease can also cause sudden, severe joint pain during a sickle cell crisis, also known as a vaso-occulsive crisis. During this type of attack, the sickle-shaped red blood cells block tiny blood vessels and deprive affected areas of oxygen, causing severe pain. The bones and joints are common sites of this type of pain. Conditions that usually cause more gradual ongoing joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, can occassionally cause more sudden flareups in one or more joints.
Next Steps, Warnings and Precautions
Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you develop sudden joint pain, especially if the pain is associated with an injury, redness or a fever. This is especially important if you have an ongoing medical condition, such as hemophilia, sickle cell disease, diabetes or HIV/AIDS, or are taking immune system suppressing medications.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.