Please upgrade your internet browser.

Our website was designed for a range of browsers. However, if you would like to use many of our latest and greatest features, please upgrade to a modern, fully supported browser.

Find the latest versions of our supported browsers.

You can also install Google Chrome Frame to better experience this site.

Is Your Joint Pain Caused by Arthritis or an Injury?

Is Your Joint Pain Caused by Arthritis or an Injury?

There are several different conditions and problems that can cause joint pain. It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether joint pain is caused by a chronic condition like arthritis or an injury.

Either way, it’s important to see a doctor to get a proper examination and diagnosis so that you can get the right treatment. You should not try to self-diagnose or self-treat joint pain. However, knowing the causes and symptoms of different conditions and injuries can help you to better communicate with your doctor about your joint pain.

These are some of the signs your doctor will look for in the examination. Knowing this information ahead of time can help you prepare for the questions your doctor may ask you during the exam.

Signs of Arthritis

These factors may indicate that arthritis is causing your joint pain.

  • Arthritis is a progressive disease; symptoms gradually get worse over time. With arthritis, there is generally not a sudden onset of symptoms.
  • Arthritis causes the cartilage in the joints to wear away over time until the bones eventually rub together. This results in dull, achy pain rather than sharp pain.
  • Over time, the joint can begin to feel stiff, and you may find it difficult to fully straighten or bend the joint. Fragments of cartilage can come loose, creating a “locking” or “sticking” sensation in the joint. The joint may also creak, click, snap, or make a grinding noise with movement.
  • Symptoms may be present in multiple joints. This is often the case for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease in which the joint lining swells and invades the surrounding tissue, destroying the joint cartilage.
  • Arthritis pain typically “flares up” or gets worse with use of the joint.
  • Arthritis can cause deformities in the joint.

Signs of an Injury

These signs may indicate that in injury is the cause of your joint pain.

  • If there is a sudden onset of intense pain, particularly after a fall or high-energy trauma, that is usually a sign of an injury.
  • If you felt a popping or snapping sensation right when the pain started, that is usually a sign of a ligament or tendon tear. This is a common indicator of an acute rotator cuff tear in the shoulder or an ACL, PCL, or meniscal tear in the knee.
  • Inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can cause swelling, but if the joint becomes swollen within 24 hours of a traumatic event, such as a fall, accident, or injury, it could be a sign of a sprain, ligament tear, or fracture.
  • If it is a ligament or tendon injury, you may feel muscle weakness or an increase in pain with certain movements. For example, those with rotator cuff tears generally experience pain and weakness when attempting to lift and lower the arm.
  • Those with acute injuries may find that the joint immediately feels unstable after the injury occurs.
  • Injuries can also occur gradually, as is the case with overuse injuries. If you play a sport or participate in an activity that requires repetitive motions, such as pitching a baseball, rowing, or swinging a tennis racquet, you may have an overuse injury.

The only way to find the true cause of your joint pain is to seek the help of a medical professional. This guide is not meant to help you diagnose yourself, but it is a good starting point for you to be able to give your doctor the information he or she needs to make a diagnosis.