Joint swelling is the buildup of fluid in the soft tissue surrounding the joint.
Swelling of a joint
Joint swelling may occur along with joint pain. The swelling may cause the joint to appear larger or abnormally shaped.
Joint swelling can cause pain or stiffness. After an injury, swelling of the joint may mean you have a broken bone or a tear in the muscle tendon or ligament.
Many different types of arthritis may cause swelling, redness, or warmth around the joint.
An infection in the joint can cause swelling, pain, and fever.
Joint swelling may be caused many different things, including:
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Reactive arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Septic arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
If the joint swelling occurs after an injury, apply ice packs to reduce pain and swelling. Raise the swollen joint so that it is higher than your heart, if possible. For example, if your ankle is swollen, lay down with pillows comfortably placed underneath your foot so that your ankle and leg is slightly raised.
For those with arthritis, your health care provider's treatment plan should be followed carefully.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider immediately if you have joint pain and swelling with a fever.
Also call your health provider if you have:
- Unexplained joint swelling
- Joint swelling after an injury
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your health care provider will obtain your medical history and will perform a physical examination. The joint will be closely examined. You will be asked questions about your joint swelling, such as:
- Which joint is swollen?
- Is more than one joint swollen?
- When did the joint swelling develop?
- Is it always swollen, or does it come and go?
- Is this the first time you have had swollen joints?
- How swollen is the area?
- If you press over the swollen area with a finger, does it leave a dent after you take the finger away?
- What makes the swelling worse?
- Is it any worse in the morning or at night?
- Does exercise make it worse?
- What make the swelling better?
- Does elevating the affected body part make the swelling go down?
- Is it better if you use an elastic wrap?
- What home treatment have you tried? Did it work?
- What other symptoms are also present?
- Is there joint pain?
- Is there fever?
- Is there a rash?
Tests to diagnose the cause of joint swelling may include:
- Blood studies (such as a CBC or blood differential)
- Joint x-rays
- Joint aspiration and examination of joint fluid
Physical therapy for muscle and joint rehabilitation may be recommended.
Arend WP, Lawry GV. Approach to the patient with rheumatic disease. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 264.
Lane NE, Schnitzer TJ. Osteoarthritis. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Cecil's Medicine 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011: chap 270.
Bearcroft PPW. Joint disease. In: Adam A, Dixon AK, eds. Grainger and Allison's Diagnostic Radiology 5th ed. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 50.
Last reviewed 8/14/2012 by Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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