Joint Pain: Understand Why and Get Treated

July 5, 2018 11:30 AM

Dr. Fallon examining patient's knee

Joint pain affects millions of Americans every year, and if left untreated, it can create long-lasting damage that will make everyday tasks harder to handle. Understanding your joint pain and its causes can help you and your doctor decide on the best course of treatment. In most cases, the leading cause of joint pain is arthritis; most commonly in the form of osteoarthritis, but the most crippling form is rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment options will vary, and depending on the severity of your pain and damage to your joints, joint replacement surgery may be the best option for you.


Osteoarthritis affects an estimated 30 million people living in the United States, accounting for over 6.6 million visits to primary care physicians in a single year. It causes a breakdown of cartilage that lines the joints, most often in your hands, knees, hips, and spine, and can be brought on either by a genetic disposition or general wear and tear. This breakdown causes pain, stiffness, and swelling, making simple tasks difficult. Per the CDC, approximately 80% of those who suffer from osteoarthritis have some type of movement limitation; 25% of those cannot perform major activities of daily life, and 14% require assistance with routine needs. Severe cases of osteoarthritis, particularly in the knee or hip, may require joint replacement to ease pain and regain movement.


Rheumatoid arthritis is not as common, affecting approximately 1.3 million Americans, but causes the most damage. This autoimmune disease causes your immune system to mistakenly attack your joints. It eventually wears out your synovium (a layer of connective tissue that lines the cavities of joints), cartilage, and bone. Rheumatoid arthritis is two times more likely in women than men, and is highest among adults in their sixties. Unfortunately, there is no known cause or cure, but joint replacement surgery may help repair and replace the damaged joint.


There is no formal, widely accepted treatment course for joint pain, but there are a variety of options. Your doctor may try several different possibilities before recommending you undergo surgery. First and foremost, it’s important to rest, and alternate ice and heat to try to reduce pain and swelling. On top of that, your doctor may prescribe different medications to reduce inflammation and ease pain. Your doctor may also recommend a lifestyle change, which could mean increasing your activity, losing weight, or stepping back from more extreme activities. If your symptoms still persist, your doctor may recommend starting regular physical therapy to stretch and strengthen your joints.

Joint replacement surgery is only considered an option when your pain is severe and interferes with your daily activities and work, or if no other treatment options show improvement. This is a big decision to make, and should come after careful consideration between yourself and your doctor.


What exactly is a total joint replacement? Well, it’s exactly how it sounds. A total joint replacement is when your doctor removes the entire joint, and replaces it with metal and/or plastic parts. In the case of a total joint knee replacement, the end surface of the femur and tibia (thigh and shin bone respectively) are replaced with metal. A plastic liner is then inserted between the femur and tibia, and the patella (the kneecap) is resurfaced with plastic. This may sound intimidating, but joint replacement has become somewhat of a routine surgery with approximately 700,000 procedures performed each year in the US alone. In addition, new technologies have improved performance and longevity meaning joint implants can now last upwards of 20 years.


Partial joint replacement is a bit less invasive as you are not replacing the entire joint. Instead, only the damaged surfaces of the joint are replaced which allows for a considerable portion of natural bone and soft tissue to remain. Advantages of partial knee replacement is that post-operative pain may be reduced and the recovery period may be shorter. However, this is not always an option as it depends on how far the damage has spread in your joint and if there is enough tissue/bone that will remain healthy.

Understanding your joint pain fully and how to manage it can make a world of difference. Don’t let joint pain control your life; visit a doctor, find the cause of your pain, and discuss the treatment plan best suited for you.