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Joint swelling

Definition

Joint swelling is the buildup of fluid in the soft tissue surrounding the joint.

Alternative Names

Swelling of a joint

Considerations

Joint swelling may occur along with joint pain. The swelling may cause the joint to appear larger or abnormally shaped.

Joint swelling can cause pain or stiffness. After an injury, swelling of the joint may mean you have a broken bone or a tear in the muscle tendon or ligament.

Many different types of arthritis may cause swelling, redness, or warmth around the joint.

An infection in the joint can cause swelling, pain, and fever.

Causes

Joint swelling may be caused by different conditions, including:

Home Care

If joint swelling occurs after an injury, apply ice packs to reduce pain and swelling. Raise the swollen joint so that it is higher than your heart, if possible. For example, if your ankle is swollen, lay down with pillows comfortably placed under your foot so that your ankle and leg are slightly raised.

If you have arthritis, follow your health care provider's treatment plan.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider right away if you have joint pain and swelling with a fever.

Also call your health care provider if you have:

  • Unexplained joint swelling
  • Joint swelling after an injury

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your health care provider will examine you. The joint will be closely examined. You will be asked about your joint swelling, such as when it began, how long it has lasted, and whether you have it all the time or only at certain times. You may also be asked what you have tried at home to relieve the swelling.

Tests to diagnose the cause of joint swelling may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Joint x-rays
  • Joint aspiration and examination of joint fluid

Physical therapy for muscle and joint rehabilitation may be recommended.

References

Davis JM III, Moder KG, Hunder GG. History and physical examination of the musculoskeletal system. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al., eds. Kelly's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 40.

Lane NE, Schnitzer TJ. Osteoarthritis. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 270.


Review Date: 8/17/2014
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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