Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What are Joint Problems?
Your musculoskeletal system is constructed of bones, muscles, and joints. The bones attach to each other at a joint, where strong tissues called tendons and ligaments help connect the bones. On the ends of each bone is a lining of smooth, protective cartilage and soft tissues (synovial membranes) that produce a liquid (synovial fluid). Thanks to the cartilage and synovial membranes, your bones are cushioned and lubricated so that they will not rub against each other. Joints are beautifully designed to let you move your body and support your weight as you go through life.
But, as you get older, your cartilage may start to deteriorate from the normal wear and tear of the passing years. The protective membranes and fluids in your joints begin to dry up. These changes may allow the bones to rub against each other painfully. You may also notice that some joints have changed shape—especially in your fingers or toes. You may feel stiff in the morning, or have aches and pains in some joints that never bothered you before. The joint may even become swollen and warm to the touch. These problems are common in older people. Usually, they are minor annoyances, but sometimes joint pain and deformities can make it very hard to function, and eventually you may need to have surgery or have the joint replaced.
If you have joint pain along with swelling, redness, warmth and tenderness in the joint, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Many joint problems can be managed by the primary care provider. Others may be handled by:
- physical therapist (healthcare professional that helps you maintain, restore, or improve physical function due to injury, disease, or disability)
- occupational therapist (healthcare professional that helps you maintain, restore, or improve upper extremity function and the ability to do activities of daily living)
- orthopedist (doctor specializing in the treatment of the musculoskeletal system)
- physiatrist (doctor specializing in rehabilitation medicine)
- rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in the treatment of the joints and connecting tissues)
The Most Common Types of Joint Problems
Arthritis (or osteoarthritis) is the most common type of joint problem in older people. It usually affects knees, hips, hands, spine, or sometimes shoulders.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common type of chronic arthritis. It is caused by an auto-immune reaction in which your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks joint tissues. Most typically, it involves the joints in your fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and toes.
Other types of arthritis include gout or pseudogout. Sometimes, there is a mechanical problem in the joint, such as torn cartilage, that causes pain or limits movement in the joint.
Types of joint problems that affect the soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments include:
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Frozen shoulder
Visit the Arthritis topic for more information on osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
How Common are Joint Problems?
Osteoarthritis, which affects about 27 million Americans, is a main reason that so many people “slow down” as they get older. Half of Americans over the age of 65 have been told they have arthritis by their healthcare provider. Women are slightly more likely to get a diagnosis of arthritis than men. Gout, however, is more common in men, with an estimated six million people having experienced an attack of gout.
The other main types of chronic joint problems can occur in the older population are:
- Calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate (CPPD) crystal deposition disease (including pseudogout), which occurs in about half of all people between the ages of 80 to 90 years, although many have no symptoms.
- Fibromyalgia is usually first diagnosed in middle age, and affects 3-5% of women and about 0.5% of men. Chances of having fibromyalgia increase as you get older.
- Tendonitis is an inflammation of the connective tissue that attaches muscles to bones. This condition can occur in anyone but becomes more common in older people as tissues lose their flexibility.
- Rotator cuff problems occur most often in the 55-85 year old age group. The rotator cuff involves the tissues supporting the shoulder joint. About 30% of older people have tears in their rotator cuff muscles and tendons, but many have no symptoms.
Updated: April 2017
Posted: March 2012