Feature Archive

Joint Pain Not Inevitable with Age

Creaking knees, hips, and ankles aren't necessarily normal aches and pains that come with age. Your pain might be arthritis. Luckily, medicine has a lot to offer --- from exercise and alternative supplements to medications and joint replacement.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Creaky, achy joints. A twinge in the knee. A sharp shooting pain from the shoulder to the elbow. No big deal, right?

Wrong. All too often, we assume joint pain is a normal part of aging that we just have to learn to live with. Nothing could be further from the truth, say experts, pointing to a wealth of treatment options from exercise and alternative supplements to medications and joint replacement surgery.

It's a serious problem, because pain can affect every aspect of your life. "Pain is not only the experience of hurting? it affects how you handle your life, your livelihood, your interactions with family and friends," Raymond Gaeta, MD, director of pain management services at Stanford Hospital & Clinic at Stanford University, tells WebMD.

Gaeta recently published a nationwide telephone survey with some stunning results: Nearly one in five (19%) had chronic pain like that caused by arthritis. Yet nearly half said they didn't know what caused their pain. The vast majority (84%) were taking over-the-counter drugs for their pain.

"The problem is, we're used to the body healing itself naturally, so we always expect that to happen," Gaeta tells WebMD. "With chronic pain, we put up with it, we try pain relievers, but we don't always see a doctor. That's the problem -- people need to talk to their doctors. There are many techniques for pain management out there, but it starts with asking the question - what's wrong?"

"The average person may not be able tell if it's the joint, a torn tendon, or pain in the area of the joint," says Shannon Whetstone Mescher, vice president of programs and services at the Arthritis Foundation. "A physician needs to evaluate you to make sure you do in fact have joint pain and why."

Getting the Right Diagnosis

Arthritis is a catch-all term that simply means inflammation of the joints - but it's not a simple diagnosis. "We now recognize over 100 different forms of arthritis," Robert Hoffman, MD, chief of rheumatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "That's why getting the correct diagnosis is important. You need the right treatment."

Another good reason to see a doctor: "Many people have other conditions that can aggravate arthritis," says Jason Theodoskais, MD, MS, MPH, FACPM, author of The Arthritis Cure and a preventive and sports medicine specialist at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

For example, gout is a form of arthritis that can lead to osteoarthritis; hemochromatosis is an inherited disease involving abnormally high iron storage in the body, which causes heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. Joint pain can also result from cancer that has spread to joints, he notes. "Unless we address the origin of the problem, people won't get the right treatment or pain relief," Theodoskais tells WebMD.

Common pain-related conditions:

Osteoarthritis: This is often called degenerative joint disease and is the most common type of arthritis in the over-50 crowd. As we get older, the rubbery cartilage that serves as a shock absorber to our joints becomes stiff, loses its elasticity, and becomes more susceptible to damage. As the cartilage wears away, tendons and ligaments stretch, causing pain. It can occur in almost any joint in the body - most commonly in the fingers, hips, knees, and spine.

Symptoms include joint aching and soreness, pain, and bony knots in the finger joints. Medications, painkillers, and alternative supplements (like glucosamine and chondroitin) can help relieve the pain. But lifestyle changes like weight loss may also be necessary to reduce stress on weight-bearing joints.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: This form of arthritis is very different from degenerative joint disease. The inflammation occurs in joints on both sides of the body - a symmetry that helps distinguish it from other types of arthritis. However, many of the symptoms sound familiar - joint pain and swelling, joint stiffness, and fatigue. Researchers believe that an external organism - like a virus or bacteria - may alter the immune system, causing it to attack the joints and sometimes other organs.