Aging & Health A to Z
Causes & Symptoms
Visit the Arthritis topic for more information on osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
You may be more likely to develop joint problems if you have certain risk factors such as:
- Family history of arthritis (arthritis in parents or siblings)
- Older age
- Being female (higher risk for rheumatoid arthritis) or male (higher risk of gout)
- Previous joint injuries
- Being overweight or obese.
In arthritic joints, your protective cartilage disappears allowing small fractures and pits to appear on bone surfaces and painful bone-on-bone friction. Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of a lifetime of wear and tear. Nerves under the cartilage become irritated and muscles and tendons may become inflamed. Past injuries or infections can also lead to arthritis in the affected joint.
This is a condition your body’s immune system attacks joint tissues, causing eventual destruction of the cartilage and bone along with the membranes. Blood vessels, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, as well as other organs, may also be damaged.
Gout and Pseudogout
These two conditions are caused by a build-up of crystals from your blood stream that collect in your joints – often in a single joint such as the knee or big toe. Uric acid crystals are responsible in gout, while in pseudogout, the culprit is calcium pyrophosphate crystals. These conditions may be linked to kidney disease or other conditions, certain medications, diet, too much alcohol intake, injuries, infection, or heredity.
Bursitis is caused by an inflamed burse (plural of bursa). The bursa is a protective sac around some joints including the shoulder and elbow. Bursitis may be caused by overuse or stress on the joint. In older people, it may accompany osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or pseudogout. The most commonly involved bursae are around the shoulder, elbow, and knees.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Capal Tunnel Syndrome occurs when pressure is put on the median nerve that controls hand movements and sensations. The pressure may be caused by an inflammation of the soft tissues in the wrist or by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout or pseudogout, among other causes.
There is no known cause for fibromyalgia, but there may be genetic and environmental components involved.
Rotator Cuff Injuries
Injuries to the rotator cuff are usually the result of years of stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint, but your genes may also play a role in making you more susceptible.
A frozen shoulder occurs when the ligaments in the shoulder joint become inflamed and “glued together,” which causes the “freezing” of the shoulder. The changes that come from aging, such as reduced production of lubricating fluid in the joint or worsening arthritis may cause it, or it may come from lack of use of the shoulder because of chronic pain.
Tendonitis is an inflammation of a tendon or the protective synovial membrane around a tendon. It is caused by overuse of the joint in younger people, but older people are at higher risk because tendons get less flexible and more vulnerable to stress with age. Commonly involved tendons include those around the shoulder, elbow, and base of the thumb.
Symptoms and Warning Signs
The following are warning signs that you may be developing arthritis:
- Pain, swelling, or tenderness in one or more joints
- Cracking or crunching sounds with movement
- Warmth or redness in the joints
- Bony knobs that appear on the joints of the fingers
Rheumatoid arthritis has some particular additional signs, such as:
- Dry eyes and mouth
- Inflammation in other places such as blood vessels or the lining of the lungs or the heart
- Joints on both sides of the body affected at the same time (for example, both ankles or both wrists)
- General fatigue, fevers, feeling sick, weight loss—especially when it starts in an older person
Gout episodes can be accompanied by a fever, severe pain, swelling and redness. Gout attacks often begin at night.
Symptoms of soft tissue joint conditions include:
- Swelling (bursitis)
- Aching or pain in the affected area, usually worsening with exercise, reaching, or at night, making it hard to sleep on the painful side (carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff tear, frozen shoulder, tendonitis)
- Stiffness or reduced range of motion
- Tenderness to the touch in the joint.
In carpal tunnel syndrome, you may feel pain, tingling and numbness in the thumb and first three fingers, sparing the pinky.
If you have fibromyalgia, pain and tenderness may be felt in many muscles all over your body. You may also have sleep problems, and general feelings of weakness and fatigue. With increasing age, however, your symptoms may get milder.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012