Joint Problems

Basic Facts

Older adults’ cartilage may start to wear down from normal wear and tear. They may also get diseases that affect their joints. Both problems can cause pain and loss of ability to do some daily activities.

Damage to cartilage and the protective membranes in joints may cause:

  • Bones to rub against each other painfully.
  • Some joints to change shape—especially in fingers or toes.
  • Stiffness in the morning.
  • New aches and pains in some joints.
  • Swollen joints that may be warm to the touch.

These problems happen often in older adults. Sometimes joint pain and deformities can make it very hard to function. So treatment may be necessary.   

If you have joint pain along with swelling, redness, warmth, and tenderness, see your healthcare provider. They can help you. A primary care provider can manage many joint problems. However, they may refer a person to other professionals:

  • Physical therapists help maintain, restore, or improve physical abilities.
  • Occupational therapists help maintain, restore, or improve the ability to perform daily activities.
  • Orthopedists are doctors specializing in the treatment of the musculoskeletal system.
  • Physiatrists are doctors specializing in rehabilitation medicine.
  • Rheumatologists are doctors who specialize in the treatment of the joints and connecting tissues.

The Most Common Types of Joint Problems


Osteoarthritis (also just called arthritis) is the most common type of joint problem in older adults. This age-related “wear and tear” typically affects the knees, hips, hands, or feet, causing cartilage in the joints to disappear and the nerves under the cartilage become irritated. Muscles and tendons may also become inflamed. 

Rheumatoid arthritis

This is the second most common type of chronic arthritis. The body's immune system attacks joint tissues. Often this type of arthritis affects the joints in fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, and toes. Damage can happen in blood vessels, nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other organs. 

Gout and pseudogout

This condition happens because of a build-up in joints of crystals from the bloodstream. Often, this happens in a single joint such as the knee or big toe. Uric acid crystals are responsible for gout. Calcium pyrophosphate crystals are the cause of pseudogout. 

Visit the Arthritis topic for more information on osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout.

Mechanical Problems

This type of joint problem can cause pain and limited movement in the joint.

The following Joint problems also can affect the soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

  • Fibromyalgia usually gets diagnosed in middle age. The disease causes widespread pain.  Some people also have sleep disturbances, fatigue, and mood changes.
  • Tendinitis is an inflammation of the tissue that attaches muscles to bones.  This condition can happen to anyone. It happens more often in older adults because their tissues tend to lose flexibility with age.
  • Rotator cuff syndrome most often occurs from age 55 to 85.  The rotator cuff involves the tissues supporting the shoulder joint. About 30 percent of older people have tears in their rotator cuff muscles and tendons. Many have no symptoms.
  • Frozen shoulder syndrome happens when the ligaments in the shoulder joint become inflamed and develop tiny scars as they heal. This makes the tissues seem glued together.” It often occurs in older adults with diabetes.
  • Bursitis is inflamed bursae (the plural of bursa). The bursa is a protective sac around some joints including the shoulder and elbow.


Last Updated May 2023

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