4 Causes of Sudden Arthritis Symptoms

Several conditions can cause arthritis-like symptoms to come on suddenly.
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"Sudden arthritis" is not a real medical condition, but the symptoms of arthritis — namely, joint pain and swelling — can develop very abruptly in some people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Arthritis can also come and go, so you could feel tip-top one day and wake up feeling sore and achy the next.

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Here's more on why arthritis might seem to come on all of a sudden, including when you should call a doctor about your symptoms.

What Is 'Sudden Arthritis,' Exactly?

The term sudden arthritis refers to inflammation and swelling in the joints with a quick onset, Nicole M. Cotter, MD, a physician board-certified in rheumatology and integrative medicine at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

According to the CDC, the primary symptoms of arthritis in general are:

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  • Joint pain
  • Joint swelling
  • Redness and stiffness in the joints

Some additional symptoms, such as fever and fatigue, can also occur with arthritis.

There are a few possible explanations when the condition seems to appear out of the blue.

4 Causes of Sudden Arthritis

1. Infection

"Infection is the immediate concern when someone has a rapid onset of joint swelling, and it must be ruled out first," Dr. Cotter says.

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According to The Arthritis Foundation, an infection can cause septic arthritis, which is also known as infectious arthritis. Typically, it will occur only in one joint and the infection will travel from somewhere else in your body, or through an open wound or medical procedure.

Symptoms of infectious arthritis usually develop very suddenly and include:

  • Intense swelling
  • Joint pain
  • Fever and chills

Joint infections typically occur in the knee but can also develop in the hips, ankles and wrists.

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Antibiotics are used to treat infectious arthritis, Dr. Cotter says, and if needed, the infected fluid can be removed from the joint. In severe cases, joint infections may require hospitalization.

2. Crystalline Arthritis

One form of arthritis that can come on very quickly is Calcium Pyrophosphate Deposition (CPPD) disease, according to The Arthritis Foundation. CPPD is often referred to as "pseudogout" because it very closely mirrors gout symptoms, but it's not the same thing.

Both CPPD and gout are caused by crystals that build up in the joint. CPPD is caused by calcium pyrophosphate crystals, while gout is due to urate crystals. Although the exact reason CPPD occurs is unknown, it does become more likely with age and tends to run in families. It often affects the knees but it can also happen in the wrists, shoulders, ankles, elbows or hands.

Per The Arthritis Foundation, symptoms of CPPD can include:

  • Joint swelling
  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Warm-to-the-touch joints
  • Fever

There is no cure for CPPD, so treatment is geared toward reducing pain and inflammation and supporting joint function. Your doctor may recommend the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids to reduce pain and inflammation.

In some cases, fluid can be removed from the swollen and inflamed joint, followed by an injection to decrease pain and inflammation. Some people may also need surgery to replace a severely damaged joint.

3. Gout

"This type of arthritis classically has a rapid onset," Dr. Cotter notes. The symptoms of gout are the same as with CPPD, because crystals build up in the joint, causing irritation and damage.

Urate crystals form when you have high levels of uric acid in your blood, which can come from your diet. Lots of meat and seafood, beer and drinks sweetened with fruit sugar (think: high-fructose corn syrup, like soda) could be to blame, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Other risk factors for gout include obesity, medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, certain medications, recent surgery or trauma and a family history of the condition.

To treat gout, doctors typically prescribe NSAIDS or corticosteroids to reduce immediate pain and swelling. An anti-inflammatory medicine called colchicine is often used as well. Once immediate symptoms subside, medicine to decrease uric acid levels can be used.

With gout, there are also some specific lifestyle strategies that can help manage your symptoms. For example, if you have gout, it can help to:

  • Stay hydrated with lots of water
  • Avoid drinking alcohol
  • Avoid high-purine foods like bacon and turkey, as well as sugary drinks
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Engage in regular exercise

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4. Autoimmune Arthritis

Autoimmune arthritis is a type of disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. There are different types, but the most common is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to The Arthritis Foundation.

RA symptoms can come on suddenly and get worse over time. For instance, many people with RA see their symptoms start out with tenderness and joint pain, and then later develop swelling.

Early symptoms of RA include:

  • Joint pain, tenderness, swelling or stiffness
  • Symptoms that last six weeks or longer
  • Symptoms in more than one joint
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever

There are no known causes of RA, but like many autoimmune conditions, it does appear to run in families and is more common in women. It usually develops in middle age, but a form of RA (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) can begin in childhood.

RA is treated with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which help relieve symptoms and work to slow joint damage.

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Other Causes of Joint Pain

There are many causes of joint pain other than arthritis, Dr. Cotter says, such as injury and overuse, bursitis (inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs near your joints) and tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon).

Joint pain can also result from abnormal pain processing, which occurs in conditions such as fibromyalgia.

Because joint pain and swelling can have many different causes, she stresses that obtaining the correct diagnosis is the most important part. You have to learn the cause of the joint pain and swelling in order to treat it correctly. Treatment options can vary widely, so it's important that you don't try to fix your joint pain or swelling on your own.

When to Call Your Doctor

Dr. Cotter urges anyone who experiences sudden symptoms of arthritis to seek medical attention immediately. If left untreated, these symptoms could lead to long-term problems in the joint.

"It is not normal for a joint to suddenly swell, and getting the correct diagnosis is of the utmost importance," she says. "Early diagnosis and intervention will mean a better outcome."

Any persistent issues warrant a call to your doctor as well, she says. For example, if you have joint pain without swelling or joint swelling without pain that persists, you should see your doctor for an evaluation.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.
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