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Painful Joints

If you have a painless swollen ankle, see chart 32

Pain in a joint may be caused by injury or strain and often gets better without a cause being found. Gout or a joint infection can cause a joint to become red, hot, and swollen. Joint pain may be due to arthritis or a reaction to an infection. Consult your doctor if pain is severe or persistent.

  • Have you injured the joint?

    • Injury

      Does either of the following apply?

      • You are unable to move the joint
      • The joint appears misshapen or swollen
      • Neither
        • Possible cause A ligament around the joint is probably sprained.

          Self-help Put a cold compress over the joint, remove, then bandage and rest the joint. See a doctor if the joint is no better in 24 hours.

    • No injury

      Do you have either of the following?

      • Hot joint(s)

        How many joints are affected?

        • One joint
          • Possible cause Septic arthritis, gout, or pseudogout, can all cause a single joint to become red, hot, and painful.

            Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

        • More than one

          Have you recently had either of the following?

          • An infection with a rash
            • Possible cause Some viral illnesses, such as rubella, can cause joint pain, but Lyme disease is also a possibility, particularly if you have been bitten by a tick.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • An infection without a rash
            • Possible cause Certain bacterial infections of the intestines and genital tract may cause a reaction that leads to painful joints (see Reactive arthritis).

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • Neither
            • Possible cause Rheumatoid arthritis is a possible cause of your symptoms.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

      • Red joint(s)

        How many joints are affected?

        • One joint
          • Possible cause Septic arthritis, gout, or pseudogout, can all cause a single joint to become red, hot, and painful.

            Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

        • More than one

          Have you recently had either of the following?

          • An infection with a rash
            • Possible cause Some viral illnesses, such as rubella, can cause joint pain, but Lyme disease is also a possibility, particularly if you have been bitten by a tick.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • An infection without a rash
            • Possible cause Certain bacterial infections of the intestines and genital tract may cause a reaction that leads to painful joints (see Reactive arthritis).

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

          • Neither
            • Possible cause Rheumatoid arthritis is a possible cause of your symptoms.

              Medical help See your doctor within 24 hours.

      • Neither

        Does moving the joint affect the pain?

        • Considerably worsens it

          Which joint or joints are affected?

          • Hip

            Is the problem in a child under the age of 12 or in someone aged 12 or over?

            • Under 12
            • 12 or over
              • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your painful joints from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Shoulder
            • Possible cause A frozen shoulder could be the cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Neck
          • Other joint(s)
            • Possible cause Your symptoms are probably a result of overuse of a joint, for example as a result of excessive exercise. A recent minor viral illness may also be the cause of such symptoms.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor if there is no improvement in 48 hours.

        • Slightly worsens it or no change

          Did the pain come on gradually over months or years?

          • Yes
            • Possible cause Osteoarthritis is the most likely cause of pain and stiffness in the joints.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • No
            • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your painful joints from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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