Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Joint Pain: Single Joint


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2019| Content last modified Sep 2019
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Joints are places in your body where two bones come together, such as your wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.

Joints also exist where you might not think. For example, there are joints between the many bones in your feet, hands, pelvis, and spine.

  • Injuries cause most joint pain involving one joint

  • Other causes include joint infections, osteoarthritis, or gout

  • See a doctor right away if you have sudden joint pain with swelling

What causes pain in a single joint?

Pain in just one joint usually has different causes than pain in many joints.

At all ages, the most common cause of sudden pain in one joint is:

  • Injury

If you haven't been injured, the most common causes depend on your age.

Among young adults:

Joint infections are often caused by gonorrhea that has spread through the body. Other germs, such as those in a nearby skin infection or boil (abscess) also can cause joint infections.

Among older adults:

Less common causes of pain in one joint include:

Osteonecrosis is when bone dies and collapses. Bone can die as a result of serious injury (such as a broken hip) or as a side effect of some medicines (such as corticosteroids).

When should I see a doctor?

See a doctor right away if you have pain in one joint and any of these warning signs:

Call a doctor after several days if you have mild joint pain that doesn’t stop on its own.

What will happen at my doctor’s visit?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history and do a physical exam.

Doctors may do tests such as:

  • Tests of joint fluid—doctors take fluid out of your joint with a needle and test the fluid for signs of infection or gout

  • Imaging tests, usually x-rays, but sometimes MRI or CT scan

  • Rarely, blood tests

How do doctors treat joint pain?

Doctors will treat the cause of your pain. For example, if you have a bone fracture, doctors may put your joint in a cast. If you have a joint infection, they will give you antibiotics and often do surgery to drain the infection.

Doctors may also treat your joint pain with:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen

  • A splint or sling

  • Applying heat or cold—sometimes doctors will have you alternate heat and cold

After your joint pain is better, doctors sometimes prescribe physical therapy. Physical therapy prevents and treats joint stiffness and strengthens the muscles around the joint.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version

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