There are over 100 different conditions and diseases which can produce pain, stiffness, or swelling in or around a joint. Some can be very serious and even life threatening. Your doctor needs to sort this out.
In order for your doctor to do this, tries to identify what anatomical structures (the joint itself, ligaments, bursa or muscle) in or around the joint may be producing your symptoms or whether the symptoms may be coming from some other source altogether such as the blood vessels or the nerves. By and large, true arthritis is uncommon, but the determination should always be made by someone expert in the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of these conditions.
Everyone has experienced pain and stiffness of their joints at one time or another. Most of this is from injuries such as injuries of the tendons, repeated trauma or overuse. This is annoying and limiting. Normal aches and pains come from prolonged periods where you don't move your joints, or specific activity that you may not have done for a while or done in excess. This is normal for people over the age of 40-45, but there shouldn't be joint swelling, you shouldn't feel ill and the symptoms should improve by six weeks or so.
You can help your doctor determine whether your symptoms are serious or not by noting the following:
- When did it start?
- Did it start gradually or abruptly?
- What were you doing at the time?
- If you don't bear weight on the joint or put pressure on it, do the symptoms get much better?
- What makes it better?
- What makes it worse?
The symptoms of something more serious or that won't get better on its own ("red flags") are:
- Multiple joints are affected at the same time, or one after another.
- You feel sick as well as having joint symptoms.
- You've had major trauma to a joint and there is a lot of swelling and pain.
- Your symptoms are not relieved by not using your joint or not bearing weight on it.
- Your symptoms are getting worse despite everything you do.
- Your symptoms are worse at the beginning of the day, rather than at the end of a day of activity.
Remember that not any one of these signs or symptoms means that you have a serious form of arthritis, but they are clues that something else may be going on than the usual aches and pains that we all experience.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A THOROUGH EVALUATION
IF YOU HAVE ANY OF THE RED FLAGS, A MORE DETAILED GENERAL PHYSICAL EXAMINATION OF YOUR LUNGS, HEART, ETC, AND PERHAPS SOME LABORATORY TESTS WILL BE DONE.
Someone experienced in diagnosing arthritis will carefully examine your joints for instability, i.e., unusual movement, and for fluid in the joints. If you have any of the red flags, a more detailed general physical examination of your lungs, heart, etc., and perhaps some laboratory tests will be done. In many instances an x-ray is not needed.