A swollen joint occurs when a surge of fluid accumulates within a joint and/or its surrounding soft tissues, making the affected body part look larger and puffier than normal — and often causing some degree of pain or discomfort in the process. Also known as joint effusion, this common problem can be a symptom of many different conditions.
At Sports Medicine Oregon, our seasoned team of board-certified orthopedists and sports medicine experts evaluate, diagnose, and treat joint swelling on a routine basis. Here, we touch on its many possible causes, and explore effective ways to ease it quickly.
Understanding joint effusion
Your bones form joints where two (or more) of them connect. For example, your elbow is a classic hinge joint made up of three bones — the upper arm bone (humerus), lower outside arm bone (ulna), and lower inside arm bone (radius).
Each joint consists of various supporting, stabilizing, and cushioning tissues, as well, such as:
- Bursas, or fluid-filled sacs that cushion your joints
- Cartilage, or slippery connective tissue that prevents bone-on-bone contact
- Tendons, or the fibrous bands of connective tissue that attach muscle to bone so you can move your joints
- Ligaments, or the elastic bands of tissue that stabilize your joints and hold them together
- Synovial membrane, or the lubricating tissue that promote fluid joint motion
Joint swelling develops when something triggers the buildup of fluid in any of the tissues that make up a joint. In addition to making the affected joint appear enlarged or unusually puffy, this extra fluid can tighten the skin around your joint and restrict your range of motion.
Swelling can affect any joint, from small joints like those in your fingers, toes, and wrists, to large joints such as those in your ankles, knees, elbows, and shoulders.
Possible causes of joint swelling
There are many different reasons why joints swell with fluid. Some of the most common are:
Joint trauma — or an acute injury like a broken bone, strained ligament, ruptured tendon, or torn cartilage — can cause rapid, persistent swelling in and around the affected joint. Sports injuries, accidental falls, and car accidents are common causes of joint trauma.
Overuse injuries occur when a joint or its supporting structures sustain an injury caused by repetitive trauma. Tendonitis, bursitis, and stress fractures are common repetitive use injuries that can lead to joint swelling and pain.
Joint swelling that’s not caused by overuse or trauma is often a product of arthritis-related inflammation caused by osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease), gout, rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease), or another rheumatic disorder.
A bacterial infection in one of your joints can lead to painful swelling. Known as septic arthritis, this serious problem can cause severe joint damage without prompt care.
Strategies to ease swollen joints
Medical treatment for joint swelling depends on the nature and severity of its underlying cause. No matter what its cause happens to be, however, there are several steps you can take to ease joint swelling when it’s happening. You should:
Rest the affected joint
Take it easy on a swollen joint, avoiding any activity that causes pain or discomfort. Rest helps calm a joint effusion, prevent further aggravation, and in some cases, promote healing.
Elevate the swollen area
Reduce swelling by keeping the affected joint elevated above your heart. Propping up your swollen knee, ankle, or wrist on a pillow as you rest helps drain excess fluid and reduce blood flow to the joint, both of which ease swelling.
Take anti-inflammatory meds
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil®) and naproxen (Aleve®) are an effective way to reduce swelling in arthritic or injured joints.
Use ice and heat therapy
Both ice and heat therapy can work well to relieve joint swelling caused by injury and arthritis. Start by applying cloth-covered ice to the affected joint for 20 minutes, repeating the process several times during the first 24 hours of swelling. If swelling persists, stick with ice therapy or switch to moist heat as desired.
Seek help from an expert
Whether your swelling is due to an injury, overuse, inflammatory arthritis, or something else, it’s important to seek expert evaluation and care if it limits your range of motion or mobility, is accompanied by severe pain, heat, redness, or fever, or you’re not sure what’s causing it.
Need help for painful, persistent, or unexplained joint swelling? We can help. Call or click online to schedule a visit at Sports Medicine Oregon in Tigard or Wilsonville, Oregon, today.