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Pain in and Around a Single Joint

By

Alexandra Villa-Forte

, MD, MPH, Cleveland Clinic

Last full review/revision Feb 2021
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Patients may report "joint" pain regardless of whether the cause involves the joint itself or surrounding (periarticular) structures such as tendons and bursae; in both cases, pain in or around a single joint will be referred to as monoarticular pain. Pain originating within a joint (arthralgia) may be caused by joint inflammation (arthritis). Inflammation tends to result in accumulation of intra-articular fluid (effusion) and clinical findings of warmth, swelling, and uncommonly erythema. With effusion, prompt assessment is essential to exclude infection. Acute monoarticular pain is sometimes caused by a disorder that characteristically causes polyarticular pain (eg, rheumatoid arthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease that primarily involves the joints. RA causes damage mediated by cytokines, chemokines, and metalloproteases. Characteristically... read more Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) ) and thus may be the initial manifestation of a polyarthritis (eg, psoriatic arthritis Psoriatic Arthritis Psoriatic arthritis is a spondyloarthropathy and chronic inflammatory arthritis that occurs in people with psoriasis of the skin or nails. The arthritis is often asymmetric, and some forms involve... read more Psoriatic Arthritis , rheumatoid arthritis—see Pain in Multiple Joints Pain in Multiple Joints Joints may simply be painful (arthralgia) or also inflamed (arthritis). Joint inflammation is usually accompanied by warmth, swelling (due to intra-articular fluid, or effusion), and uncommonly... read more ).

Pathophysiology of Pain in a Single Joint

Pain in and around a joint may involve

  • Inflammation (due to, eg, infection, crystal-induced arthritis, or autoimmune systemic inflammatory disorders)

  • Noninflammatory problems, usually mechanical (eg, trauma, internal derangements)

The synovium and joint capsule are major sources of intra-articular pain. The synovial membrane is the main site affected by inflammation (synovitis). Pain that originates from the menisci is more likely to be a result of injury.

Etiology of Pain in a Single Joint

The most common causes of acute monoarticular pain overall are the following:

  • Injury

  • Infection

  • Crystal-induced arthritis

With injury, a history of trauma is usually present and suggestive. Injury can affect intra-articular and/or periarticular structures and involve direct injury (eg, twisting during a fall) or overuse (eg, repetitive motion, prolonged kneeling).

Among young adults, the most common causes are the following:

Among older adults, the most common nontraumatic causes are the following:

The most dangerous cause of joint pain at any age is acute infectious (septic) arthritis Acute Infectious Arthritis Acute infectious arthritis is a joint infection that evolves over hours or days. The infection resides in synovial or periarticular tissues and is usually bacterial—in younger adults, frequently... read more Acute Infectious Arthritis . Prompt drainage, IV antibiotics, and sometimes operative joint lavage may be required to minimize permanent joint damage and prevent sepsis and death.

Rare causes of monoarticular pain include osteonecrosis Osteonecrosis (ON) Osteonecrosis is a focal infarct of bone that may be caused by specific etiologic factors or may be idiopathic. It can cause pain, limitation of motion, joint collapse, and secondary osteoarthritis... read more , pigmented villonodular synovitis Pigmented villonodular synovitis (tenosynovial giant cell tumor) Tumors rarely affect joints, unless by direct extension of an adjacent bone or soft-tissue tumor. However, 2 conditions—synovial chondromatosis and pigmented villonodular synovitis—occur in... read more Pigmented villonodular synovitis (tenosynovial giant cell tumor) , hemarthrosis (eg, in hemophilia Hemophilia Hemophilias are common hereditary bleeding disorders caused by deficiencies of either clotting factor VIII or IX. The extent of factor deficiency determines the probability and severity of bleeding... read more or coagulopathies Overview of Coagulation Disorders Abnormal bleeding can result from disorders of the coagulation system, of platelets, or of blood vessels. Disorders of coagulation can be acquired or hereditary. The major causes of acquired... read more ), tumors Overview of Bone and Joint Tumors Bone tumors may be benign or malignant. Malignant tumors may be primary or metastatic. In children, most bone tumors are primary and benign; some are malignant primary tumors (eg, osteosarcoma... read more (see table Some Causes of Pain in and Around a Single Joint Some Causes of Pain in and Around a Single Joint Patients may report "joint" pain regardless of whether the cause involves the joint itself or surrounding (periarticular) structures such as tendons and bursae; in both cases, pain in or around... read more ), and disorders that usually cause polyarticular pain, such as reactive arthritis Reactive Arthritis Reactive arthritis is an acute spondyloarthropathy that often seems precipitated by an infection, usually genitourinary or gastrointestinal. Common manifestations include asymmetric arthritis... read more Reactive Arthritis and enteropathic arthritis.

Sometimes, pain is referred to a joint. For example, a splenic injury may cause left shoulder pain, and children with a hip disorder may complain of knee pain.

Table
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Evaluation of Pain in a Single Joint

Acute monoarticular joint pain requires rapid diagnosis because infectious (septic) arthritis requires rapid treatment.

Clinical evaluation should determine whether the joint or periarticular structures are the cause of symptoms and whether there is joint inflammation. If signs of inflammation are present or the diagnosis is unclear, symptoms and signs of polyarticular and systemic disorders should be sought.

History

History of present illness should focus on the location of pain, acuity of onset (eg, abrupt, gradual), whether the problem is new or recurrent, and whether other joints have caused pain in the past. Also, temporal patterns (eg, persistent vs intermittent), associated symptoms (eg, swelling), exacerbating and mitigating factors (eg, activity), and any recent or past trauma to the joint should be noted. Patients should also be asked about unprotected sexual contact (indicating risk of sexually transmitted diseases), previous Lyme disease, and possible tick bites in areas where Lyme disease is endemic.

Review of systems may provide clues to systemic disorders. Review of systems should seek extra-articular symptoms of causative disorders, including fever (infection, sometimes crystal-induced arthritis), urethritis (gonococcal arthritis or reactive arthritis), rash or eye redness (reactive or psoriatic arthritis), history of abdominal pain and diarrhea (inflammatory bowel disease), and recent diarrhea or genital lesions (reactive arthritis).

Past medical history is most likely to be helpful if pain is chronic or recurrent. Past medical history should identify known joint disorders (particularly gout and osteoarthritis), conditions that may cause or predispose to monoarticular joint pain (eg, bleeding disorder, bursitis, tendinitis), and disorders that can predispose to a joint disorder (eg, sickle cell disease or chronic corticosteroid use predisposing to osteonecrosis). Drug history should be reviewed, particularly for use of anticoagulants, quinolone antibiotics (tendinitis), or diuretics (gout). A family history should also be obtained (some spondyloarthropathies).

Physical examination

A complete physical examination is done. All major organ systems (eg, skin and nails, eyes, genitals, mucosal surfaces, heart, lungs, abdomen, nose, neck, lymph nodes, neurologic system) should be examined, as well as the musculoskeletal system. Vital signs are reviewed for fever. Examination of the head, neck, and skin should note any signs of conjunctivitis, psoriatic plaques, tophi, or ecchymoses. Genital examination should note any discharge or other findings suggesting sexually transmitted diseases.

Because involvement of other joints can be clues to a polyarthritis and a systemic disorder, all joints should be inspected for tenderness, deformities, erythema, and swelling.

Palpation helps determine the location of tenderness. Palpation also helps detect joint effusion, warmth, and bony hypertrophy. The joint can also be compressed without flexing or extending it. Range of motion is assessed actively and passively, with attention to the presence of crepitus and whether pain is triggered by joint motion (passive as well as active). For injuries, the joint is stressed with various maneuvers (as tolerated) to identify disruption of cartilage or ligaments (eg, in the knee, valgus and varus tests, anterior and posterior drawer tests, Lachman test, McMurray test). Findings should be compared with those in the contralateral unaffected joint to help detect more subtle changes. Noting whether the tenderness is directly over the joint line or adjacent to it or elsewhere is particularly helpful in determining whether pain (particularly when the knee is involved) is articular or periarticular.

Large effusions in the knee are typically readily apparent. The examiner can check for minor effusions by pushing the suprapatellar pouch inferiorly and then pressing medially on the lateral side of the patella on an extended knee. This maneuver causes swelling to appear (or be palpable) on the medial side. Large knee effusions in obese patients are best detected with ballottement of the patella. In this technique, the examiner uses both hands to push in toward the center of the knee from all four quadrants and then uses 2 or 3 fingers to push the patella down into the trochlear groove and releases it. Clicking or a feeling that the patella is floating suggests an effusion.

Periarticular structures also should be examined for point tenderness, such as at the insertion of a tendon (enthesitis), over a tendon (tendinitis), or over a bursa (bursitis). With some types of bursitis (eg, olecranon, prepatellar), swelling and sometimes erythema may be localized at the bursa.

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Erythema, warmth, effusion, and decreased range of motion

  • Fever with acute joint pain

  • Acute joint pain in a sexually active young adult

  • Skin breaks with signs of cellulitis adjacent to the affected joint

  • Underlying bleeding disorder or use of anticoagulants

  • Systemic or extra-articular symptoms

Interpretation of findings

Recent significant trauma suggests that injury is the cause (eg, fracture, meniscal tear, or hemarthrosis). However, trauma does not rule out other causes, and patients often mistakenly attribute newly developed nontraumatic pain to an injury. Testing is often necessary to rule out serious causes and establish the diagnosis.

Whether pain is intra-articular, periarticular, or both (eg, in gout Gout Gout is a disorder caused by hyperuricemia (serum urate > 6.8 mg/dL [> 0.4 mmol/L]) that results in the precipitation of monosodium urate crystals in and around joints, most often causing recurrent... read more Gout , which can affect intra- and extra-articular structures) and whether there is inflammation are key determinations, based mainly on physical findings. Pain during rest and on initiating activity suggests joint inflammation, whereas pain worsened by movement and largely relieved by rest suggests mechanical or noninflammatory disorders (eg, osteoarthritis Osteoarthritis (OA) Osteoarthritis is a chronic arthropathy characterized by disruption and potential loss of joint cartilage along with other joint changes, including bone hypertrophy (osteophyte formation). Symptoms... read more Osteoarthritis (OA) ). Pain that is worse with passive as well as active joint motion on examination, and that restricts joint motion, usually indicates inflammation. Increased warmth and erythema also suggest inflammation, but these findings are often insensitive, so their absence does not rule out inflammation.

Pain that worsens with active but not passive motion may indicate tendinitis Tendinitis and Tenosynovitis Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon, often developing after degeneration (tendinopathy). Tenosynovitis is tendinitis with inflammation of the tendon sheath lining. Symptoms usually include... read more or bursitis Bursitis Bursitis is acute or chronic inflammation of a bursa. The cause is usually unknown, but trauma, repetitive or acute, may contribute, as may infection and crystal-induced disease. Symptoms include... read more Bursitis , as can tenderness or swelling localized over a bursa or tendon insertion site. Tenderness or swelling at only one side of a joint, or away from the joint line, suggests an extra-articular origin (eg, tendons or bursae); localized joint line tenderness or more diffuse involvement of the joint suggests an intra-articular cause. Compressing the joint without flexing or extending it is not particularly painful in patients with tendinitis or bursitis but is quite painful in those with arthritis.

Symptoms indicating dermatologic, cardiac, or pulmonary involvement suggest disorders that are systemic and more commonly result in polyarticular joint pain.

Testing

Joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) for synovial fluid examination should be done in patients with joint effusion (see How to Do Arthrocentesis How To Do Ankle Arthrocentesis Arthrocentesis of the ankle is the process of puncturing the tibiotalar joint with a needle to withdraw synovial fluid. The anteromedial approach is described. (See also Evaluation of the Patient... read more ). Synovial fluid examination includes white blood cell (WBC) count with differential, Gram stain and cultures, and microscopic examination for crystals using polarized light. Finding crystals in synovial fluid confirms crystal-induced arthritis but does not rule out coexisting infection. A noninflammatory synovial fluid (eg, 1000/mcL [< 1="" ×="">9/L] WBCs) is more suggestive of osteoarthritis or trauma. Hemorrhagic fluid is consistent with hemarthrosis. Synovial fluid WBC counts can be very high (eg, > 50,000/mcL [> 50 × 109/L] WBCs) in both infectious and crystal-induced arthritis. Sometimes, molecular techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction, are used to detect the presence of microorganisms.

For some patients with prior confirmed gouty arthritis, a recurrent episode may not require any testing. However, if infection is a reasonable possibility, or if symptoms do not rapidly resolve after appropriate therapy for gouty arthritis, arthrocentesis should be done.

X-rays rarely change the diagnosis in acute monarthritis unless fracture is suspected. X-rays may reveal signs of joint damage in patients with a long history of recurrent arthritis. Other imaging tests (eg, CT, bone scan, but most often MRI) are rarely necessary acutely but may be indicated for diagnosis of certain specific disorders (eg, osteonecrosis, tumor [see table Some Causes of Pain in and Around a Single Joint Some Causes of Pain in and Around a Single Joint Patients may report "joint" pain regardless of whether the cause involves the joint itself or surrounding (periarticular) structures such as tendons and bursae; in both cases, pain in or around... read more ], occult fracture, pigmented villonodular synovitis).

Blood tests (eg, erythrocyte sedimentation rate [ESR], rheumatoid factor, anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide [anti-CCP] antibody) may help support a clinically suspected diagnosis of a systemic inflammatory disorder (eg, rheumatoid arthritis). Serum urate level should not be used to diagnose gout because it is neither sensitive nor specific and does not necessarily reflect the presence of intra-articular uric acid deposits.

Treatment of Pain in a Single Joint

Overall treatment is directed at the underlying disorder. IV antibiotics are usually given immediately or as soon as possible if acute bacterial infectious arthritis is suspected.

Joint inflammation is usually treated symptomatically with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Pain without inflammation is usually more safely treated with acetaminophen. Adjunctive treatment for pain can include joint immobilization with a splint or sling and heat or cold therapy.

Physical therapy after the acute symptoms have lessened is useful to increase or maintain range of motion and strengthen adjacent muscles.

Key Points

  • Arthrocentesis is mandatory to rule out infection in acute monoarticular joint pain with joint effusion.

  • Infection is the most common cause of acute nontraumatic monarthritis in young adults, whereas osteoarthritis is the most common cause in older adults.

  • Crystals in synovial fluid confirm crystal-induced arthritis but do not rule out coexisting infection.

  • Do not use serum urate level to diagnose gout.

  • Joint pain that is still unexplained after arthrocentesis and x-ray should be evaluated with MRI to rule out uncommon etiologies (eg, occult fracture, osteonecrosis, pigmented villonodular synovitis) and molecular techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction, should be done to detect the presence of microorganisms.

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