Joint swelling is the buildup of fluid in the soft tissue surrounding the joint.
Swelling of a joint
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.
Joint swelling may be caused by different conditions, including:
- Chronic type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis
- Painful type of arthritis caused by buildup of uric acid crystals in a joint (gout)
- Arthritis caused by wear and tear of joints (osteoarthritis)
- Arthritis caused by buildup of calcium-type crystals in joints (pseudogout)
- Disorder that involves arthritis and a skin condition called psoriasis (psoriatic arthritis)
- Group of conditions that involve the joints, eyes, and urinary and genital systems (reactive arthritis)
- Inflammation of joints, nearby tissues, and sometimes other organs (rheumatoid arthritis)
- Inflammation of a joint due to an infection (septic arthritis)
- Disorder in which the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue (systemic lupus erythematosus)
For joint swelling 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 provider right away if you have joint pain and swelling with a fever.
Also call your provider if you have:
- Unexplained joint swelling
- Joint swelling after an injury
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your 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:
Physical therapy for muscle and joint rehabilitation may be recommended.
Goldring SR, Goldring MB. Biology of the normal joint. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, McInnes IB, O'Dell JR, eds. Kelly's Textbook of Rheumatology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 1.
Raftery AT, Lim E, Ostor AJK. Joint disorders. In: Raftery AT, Lim E, Ostor AJK, eds. Churchill's Pocketbook of Differential Diagnosis. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2014:267-298.
West SG. Systemic diseases in which arthritis is a feature. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 275.
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.