Joint Problems

Basic Facts

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 and muscles. 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. 

As you get older, your cartilage may start to deteriorate from the normal wear and tear of the passing years. The protective membranes in your joints may become damaged. 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 your primary care provider. Others may be handled by:

  • Physical therapists (healthcare professionals who help you maintain, restore, or improve physical function due to injury, disease, or disability)
  • Occupational therapists (healthcare professionals who help you maintain, restore, or improve arm and shoulder function and the ability to perform daily activities)
  • Orthopedists (doctors specializing in the treatment of the musculoskeletal system)
  • Physiatrists (doctors specializing in rehabilitation medicine)
  • Rheumatologists (doctors who specialize 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 the knees, hips, hands, or feet.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common type of chronic arthritis.  It is caused by a 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
  • Tendonitis
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Bursitis
  • Fibromyalgia
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 one of the main reasons 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 (also called pseudogout), which occurs more often in older adults and can cause arthritis in the knee, hip, wrist, or hand joints.
  • Fibromyalgia is usually first diagnosed in middle age. It is a pain syndrome characterized by widespread pain and some people also have sleep disturbance, fatigue, and mood changes.
  • 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.      


Last Updated June 2020