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Joint Pain: Many Joints

(Polyarticular Joint Pain)

By

Alexandra Villa-Forte

, MD, MPH, Cleveland Clinic

Last full review/revision Feb 2021| Content last modified Feb 2021
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True joint pain (arthralgia) may or not be accompanied by joint inflammation (arthritis). The most common symptom of joint inflammation is pain. Inflamed joints may also be warm and swollen, and less often the overlying skin may be red. Arthritis may involve only joints of the limbs or also joints of the central part of the skeleton, such as the spine or pelvis. Pain may occur only when a joint is moved or may be present at rest. Other symptoms, such as rash, fever, eye pain, or mouth sores, may be present depending on the cause of the joint pain.

Different disorders tend to affect different numbers of joints. Because of this, doctors consider different causes of pain when the pain affects one joint (see Joint Pain: Single Joint Joint Pain: Single Joint Pain that is isolated to just one joint is called monoarticular joint pain. A joint may simply be painful (arthralgia) or may also be inflamed (arthritis). Arthritis usually causes warmth, swelling... read more ) than when it affects more than one joint. When multiple joints are involved, some disorders are more likely to affect the same joint on both sides of the body (for example, both knees or both hands) than other disorders. This is termed symmetric arthritis. Also, in some disorders, an attack of arthritis remains in the same joints throughout the attack. In other disorders, the arthritis moves from joint to joint (migratory arthritis).

Causes of Pain in Many Joints

In most cases, the cause of pain originating inside multiple joints is arthritis. Disorders that cause arthritis may differ from each other in certain tendencies, such as the following:

  • How many and which joints they usually involve

  • Whether the central part of the skeleton, such as the spine or pelvis, is typically involved

  • Whether arthritis is sudden (acute) or longstanding (chronic)

Acute arthritis affecting multiple joints is most often due to

Chronic arthritis affecting multiple joints is most often due to

Some chronic inflammatory disorders can affect the spine as well as the limb joints (called the peripheral joints). Some affect certain parts of the spine more frequently. For example, ankylosing spondylitis more commonly affects the lower (lumbar) part of the spine, whereas rheumatoid arthritis more typically affects the upper (cervical) part of the spine in the neck.

The most common disorders outside the joints that cause pain around the joints are

Bursitis and tendinitis often result from injury, usually affecting only one joint. However, certain disorders cause bursitis or tendinitis in many joints.

Evaluation of Pain in Many Joints

In evaluating joint pain, doctors first try to decide whether joint pain is caused by a disorder of the joints or a serious bodywide (systemic) illness. Serious bodywide disorders may need specific immediate treatment. The following information can help people decide when to see a doctor and know what to expect during the evaluation.

Warning signs

In people with pain in more than one joint, symptoms that should prompt rapid evaluation include

  • Joint swelling, warmth, and redness

  • New rashes, spots, or purple blotches

  • Sores in the mouth or nose or on the genitals

  • Chest pain, shortness of breath, or new or severe cough

  • Abdominal pain

  • Fever, sweats, weight loss, or chills

  • Eye redness or pain

When to see a doctor

People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs should call a doctor. The doctor decides how quickly they need to be seen based on the severity and location of pain, whether joints are swollen, whether the cause has been diagnosed previously, and other factors. Typically, a delay of several days or so is not harmful for people without warning signs.

What the doctor does

Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Then they do a physical examination. What doctors find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause for joint pain and guides the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Causes and Features of Pain in More Than One Joint Some Causes and Features of Pain in More Than One Joint Pain that seems to be coming from joints can sometimes be coming from structures outside the joints, such as ligaments, tendons, or muscles (see Introduction to the Biology of the Musculoskeletal... read more ).

Doctors ask about pain severity, onset (sudden or gradual), how symptoms vary over time, and what increases or decreases pain (for example, rest or movement or time of day when the symptoms worsen or abate). They ask about joint stiffness and swelling, previously diagnosed joint disorders, and risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and Lyme disease.

Doctors then do a complete physical examination. They check all joints (including those of the spine) for swelling, redness, warmth, tenderness, and noises that are made when the joints are moved (called crepitus). The joints are moved through their full range of motion, first by the person without assistance (called active range of motion) and then by the doctor (called passive range of motion). This examination helps determine which structure is causing the pain and if inflammation is present. They also check the eyes, mouth, nose, and genital area for sores or other signs of inflammation. The skin is examined for rashes. Lymph nodes are felt and the lungs and heart examined. Doctors usually test function of the nervous system so that they can detect disorders of the muscles or nerves.

Some findings give helpful clues as to the cause. For example, if the tenderness is around the joint but not over the joint, bursitis or tendinitis is likely the cause. If tenderness is present all over, fibromyalgia is possible. If the spine is tender as well as the joints, possible causes include osteoarthritis, reactive arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis. Findings in the hand can help doctors differentiate between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, two particularly common types of arthritis. For example, rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to involve the large knuckle joints (those that join the fingers with the hand) and wrist. Osteoarthritis is more likely to involve the finger joint near the fingernail. The wrist is unlikely to be affected in osteoarthritis, except at the base of the thumb.

Table
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Testing

The following tests are the most important overall:

  • Tests of joint fluid

  • Blood tests for autoantibodies

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein

If joints are swollen, doctors usually insert a needle into the joint to take a sample of the fluid in the joint for testing (a procedure called joint aspiration Joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) A doctor can often diagnose a musculoskeletal disorder based on the history and the results of a physical examination. Laboratory tests, imaging tests, or other diagnostic procedures are sometimes... read more Joint aspiration (arthrocentesis) or arthrocentesis). Doctors numb the area before taking a sample, so people experience little or no pain during the procedure. Doctors generally do a culture on the fluid to see whether infection is present. They look under a microscope for crystals in the fluid, which indicate gout or related disorders. The numbers of white blood cells in the fluid indicate whether the joint is inflamed.

Doctors also often do blood tests Laboratory Tests A doctor can often diagnose a musculoskeletal disorder based on the history and the results of a physical examination. Laboratory tests, imaging tests, or other diagnostic procedures are sometimes... read more Laboratory Tests for autoantibodies. Examples of such tests are antinuclear antibodies, anti–double-stranded DNA, anticyclic citrullinated peptide, and rheumatoid factor. Autoantibodies in the blood may indicate an autoimmune disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus.

The ESR is a test that measures the rate at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube containing a blood sample. Blood that settles quickly typically means that bodywide (systemic) inflammation is likely, but many factors can affect the ESR test including age and anemia, so the test is sometimes inaccurate. To help determine whether bodywide inflammation is present, doctors sometimes do another blood test called C-reactive protein (a protein that circulates in the blood and dramatically increases in level when there is inflammation).

Treatment of Pain in Many Joints

The underlying disorder is treated. For example, people with an autoimmune disorder (such as systemic lupus erythematosus) may need a drug that suppresses the immune system. People with a gonorrhea infection in the joint need antibiotics.

Symptoms can usually be relieved before the diagnosis is known. Inflammation can usually be relieved with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs In some cases, treating the underlying disorder eliminates or minimizes the pain. For example, setting a broken bone in a cast or giving antibiotics for an infected joint helps reduce pain.... read more (NSAIDs). Pain without inflammation is usually treated more safely with acetaminophen Acetaminophen In some cases, treating the underlying disorder eliminates or minimizes the pain. For example, setting a broken bone in a cast or giving antibiotics for an infected joint helps reduce pain.... read more . Immobilizing the joint with a splint or sling can sometimes relieve pain. Applying heat Heat therapy Professional rehabilitation therapists treat pain and inflammation. Such treatment makes movement easier and enables people to participate more fully in rehabilitation. Techniques used include... read more (for example, with a heating pad) may decrease pain by relieving spasm in the muscles around joints (for example, after an injury). Applying cold Cold therapy (cryotherapy) Professional rehabilitation therapists treat pain and inflammation. Such treatment makes movement easier and enables people to participate more fully in rehabilitation. Techniques used include... read more (for example, with ice) may help relieve pain caused by joint inflammation. Heat or cold should be applied for at least 15 minutes at a time to allow deep penetration. The skin must be protected from extremes of heat and cold. For example, ice should be put in a plastic bag and wrapped in a towel.

After the acute pain and inflammation have lessened, physical therapy Physical Therapy (PT) Physical therapy, a component of rehabilitation, involves exercising and manipulating the body with an emphasis on the back, upper arms, and legs. It can improve joint and muscle function, helping... read more may be useful to regain or maintain range of motion and strengthen surrounding muscles. In people with chronic arthritis, continued physical activity is important to prevent permanent joint stiffness (contractures) and muscle loss (atrophy).

Essentials for Older People

Osteoarthritis Osteoarthritis (OA) Osteoarthritis is a chronic disorder that causes damage to the cartilage and surrounding tissues and is characterized by pain, stiffness, and loss of function. Arthritis due to damage of joint... read more Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common cause of multiple joint pains in the elderly. Although more common among younger adults (those aged 30 to 40), rheumatoid arthritis Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory arthritis in which joints, usually including those of the hands and feet, are inflamed, resulting in swelling, pain, and often destruction of joints.... read more Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) can also begin later in life (after age 60). Older adults who may have rheumatoid arthritis may also have cancer. People over age 55 who have hip and shoulder stiffness and pain that is usually worse in the morning may have polymyalgia rheumatica Polymyalgia Rheumatica Polymyalgia rheumatica involves inflammation of the lining of joints, causing severe pain and stiffness in the muscles of the neck, back, shoulders, and hips. The cause is unknown. The neck... read more . Recognizing polymyalgia rheumatica is important because treating it can help prevent other problems. Gout Gout Gout is a disorder in which deposits of uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints because of high blood levels of uric acid (hyperuricemia). The accumulations of crystals cause flare-ups ... read more Gout in older women tends to affect the distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints of the hands (the first knuckles from the tip of the fingers).

Key Points about Joint Pain

  • Acute pain in multiple joints is most often due to inflammation, gout, or the beginning or flare up of a chronic joint disorder.

  • Chronic pain in multiple joints is usually due to osteoarthritis or an inflammatory disorder (such as rheumatoid arthritis) or, in children, juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

  • When significant fluid accumulates inside of a joint, a fluid sample usually must be withdrawn and tested.

  • Lifelong physical activity helps maintain range of motion in people with chronic arthritis.

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Musculoskeletal Pain
The most common symptom in musculoskeletal disorders is pain. Pain varies widely from mild to severe, and from short-lived and acute to long-term and chronic. Pain may affect a small or large area of the body. Which of the following is the most common cause of musculoskeletal pain?
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