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Arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain, swelling, stiffness and inflammation. However, there are other diseases that mimic symptoms of arthritis. This article outlines the different diseases that also cause joint pain and swelling.

Joints are regions where two ends of the bone meet. As people get older, they often develop pain in their joints. While this phenomenon can be a part of the body’s natural aging process, in many cases arthritis is the cause. Arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain, swelling, stiffness and inflammation. There are more than a 100 different subtypes of arthritis, making it quite a varied disease.

Joint pain doesn’t always point to arthritis. In fact, there are several diseases that mimic arthritic symptoms. If you feel joint pain and don’t have arthritis, these are the diseases you are most likely to have.

1. Injury to the joint

Several different types of injuries can affect a joint, some of which include:

  • Avascular necrosis — death of bone tissue due to lack of blood supply
  • broken bone
  • Joint dislocation
  • sprain
  • Strain.

A joint injury can weaken the strength of the structural components of a joint, causing there to be significant bruising of the bone, bone remodeling, damage to surrounding structures (such as ligaments), or cartilage damage. If the joint is affected by an injury, it can be painful to conduct everyday activities such as walking. Additionally, the pain may surface when you are at rest. While a joint injury is not arthritis, having a joint injury can increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis at a later time (sometimes, years or decades later).

2. Inflammation of the joints

Generally, inflammation of a joint is accompanied by an injury, disease, or infection. When a joint is inflamed, the synovium (the fluid that surrounds the joints) tends to get thicker and the the actual fluid production increases. Together, that causes the region of the joint to swell. The immune cells that create inflammation then move into the joint tissue. This whole process is referred to as active synovitis. Inflammation of the joint is also associated with the appearance of redness, a feeling of warmth or pain, and joint stiffness.

Non-arthritic conditions that can lead to inflammation of joints include:

  • Bursitis (inflammation and swelling of a bursa, which is a fluid-filled pouch that develops under the skin and over the joints)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disease that can affect the joints)
  • Lyme Disease (an infectious disease caused by a bacteria called Borrelia Burgdoferi, spread by ticks).
  • Tendinitis (irritation of a tendon)

3. Infection of a joint

Bacterial, viral and fungal infections can travel from the area of infection to a joint. This can lead to the development of several different types of arthritis, including infectious arthritis, reactive arthritis, and septic arthritis. These microorganisms can enter the body through various pathways, such as the skin, nose, throat, mouth, ears, or an open wound. Furthermore, an existing infection can actually spread towards a joint, where infectious arthritis can develop. Fortunately, if the infection is caught early on and treated, the infection generally resolves. Hence, it is important to recognize signs of infection-induced arthritic pain early on and treated as aggressively at the beginning as possible or the joint damage can become permanent.

4. Tumors around the joint

In very rare cases, tumors can develop that involve the joints. However, in most cases, joints are affected by tumors because there is a tumor that is located near the joint (such as in the bone or the soft-tissue). There are two different types of tumors that can develop in lining of the joints known as synovial chondromatosis and villonodular synovitis. Fortunately, in most cases, these tumors are benign and will not spread. However, they can also be aggressive. Usually, only one joint is affected and painful. The pain is usually resolved when the tumor is resected (removed) using a surgery known as a synovectomy (which involves removing part or all of the synovium of a joint).

5. Hemochromatosis

This a disease in which too much iron builds up in the body. Sometimes, it is associated with joint pain.

6. Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a disease in which the thyroid is either underactive or produces low levels of thyroid hormone. In some cases, patients develop joint pain.

7. Leukemia or myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS)

These are two different types of blood cancers that can cause bone or joint pain as it causes your bone marrows to become overcrowded with cancer cells.

8. Osteomalacia

Osteomalacia is a disease that is characterized by softening of your bones, most often caused by a severe vitamin D deficiency. Osteomalacia is often accompanied by joint pain.

9. Osteomyelitis

This refers to infection of the bone, which is a rare but serious condition. Osteomyelitis can cause significant joint pain.

10. Paget's disease of the bone 

This a disease that interferes with your body's normal bone recycling process, in which new bone replaces old bone tissue over time. Hence, an imbalance in this process causes bone to become fragile and misshapen and can lead to joint pain.

Conclusion

Joint pain can be a serious problem as it is often associated with damage to the joints and to the bones. If not treated early on, it can sometimes lead to permanent damage. Therefore, it is important to identify the source of pain and treat it as promptly as possible. If you feel pain in the joints, make sure to book an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can before it progresses any further.

  • Gonzalez-Gay, MIGUEL A., et al. "The spectrum of conditions mimicking polymyalgia rheumatica in Northwestern Spain." The Journal of Rheumatology 27.9 (2000): 2179-2184.
  • Steere, Allen C., Robert T. Schoen, and Elise Taylor. "The clinical evolution of Lyme arthritis." Annals of internal medicine 107.5 (1987): 725-731.
  • Calabrese, Leonard H., and Stanley J. Naides. "Viral arthritis." Infectious Disease Clinics 19.4 (2005): 963-980.
  • Calabro, John J. "Cancer and arthritis." Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology 10.6 (1967): 553-567.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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