A sudden twinge in an elbow, shoulder, knee or another joint is probably not arthritis. Most forms of arthritis develop slowly, striking first in the hands. Instead, you’ve probably irritated the soft tissue around the joint, which calls for a slightly different approach to treatment than arthritis.
Soft-tissue inflammation is not a natural consequence of aging. Most cases can be traced to excessive exercise or to a job-related activity involving repetitive motion. The pain is usually apparent within 24 hours of overuse. It can range from a dull ache to shooting pain.
Common Soft-Tissue Injuries
Rotator cuff tendonitis affects the tendons that hold the shoulder joint in place. Common among swimmers and other athletes, this ailment can make it hard to get dressed or lie down.
Shoulder bursitis, very common among gardeners and house painters, is caused by repeated pressure on shoulder bursae, fluid-filled “cushions” that protect the joints. It becomes painful to move the arm away from the body.
Tennis elbow strokes carpenters, gardeners, mechanics, dentists and tennis players who use poor form or a tightly strung racket. The pain makes it hard to shake hands or lift a briefcase.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is an inflammation of tissue surrounding the median nerve of the hand. Symptoms include weakness, pain, burning or aching in the wrist and/or hand. Usually caused by repeated hand motions, like those used by checkout clerks, seamstresses and computer operators.
Prepatellar bursitis involves inflammation of the bursa in front of the kneecap (patella). It is common in people who must stand or kneel for extended periods. The pain is rarely severe.
Shin splints involve pain in the front of the lower leg. Most cases are caused by repetitive exercise, especially running on hard surfaces. This can injure muscle and tendon tissue.
Achilles tendonitis, inflammation of the Achilles tendon, is common among basketball players and runners (especially those who run on concrete or in flimsy shoes). Symptoms include pain, swelling and tenderness in the heel.
Plantar fasciitis, which is common among runners, involves a tear in the ligament connecting the arch to the heel. It causes a burning pain on the sole of the foot and the heel, making it painful to walk or stand on your toes.
Trochanteric bursitis is inflammation of the bursa near the hip. Symptoms include pain in the hip and thigh, especially when you walk, rise from a chair or lie on the affected side.
When you experience sudden pain, tenderness or swelling in a joint, you should immediately consult your doctor. It’s also essential to stop whatever activity may have caused the injury in the first place, at least until the inflammation has healed. Upon thorough examination to assess injury (including complete review of your medical history, physical exam, review of systems, x-rays, etc.), your doctor may follow up with the following common treatments: 1) prescription for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or indomethacin (Indocin); 2) short-term joint immobilization using a sling, along with ice packs applied during the first 24-48 hours after the onset of pain, and followed by heat compresses thereafter; 3) possible corticosteroid injections and/or physical therapy when NSAIDs are not enough; and 4) orthopedic surgery in the worst of cases. Oftentimes, rest and NSAIDs are enough to get rid of the pain and swelling in a few short weeks.
If exercise caused your injury, you may be able to return to your former level of intensity – but only gradually, over several months, and only after carefully analyzing the mechanical problems that caused the injury.
If the inflammation stemmed from an anatomical problem, consider replacing the offending activity with one your body can better handle. Switch from running to cycling, for example.
For job-related tendonitis or bursitis, ask your doctor to refer you to an occupational therapist. He will carefully analyze your work movements and find ways to reduce stress on your joints. A switch in equipment often helps – for example, wearing shoes with good cushioning and firm heel support or using a raised, padded bar to support your wrists when typing.