Swollen joints

A swollen joint is usually caused by damage to the tissues in or near your joint and can be caused by injury, over-use or an underlying disease.

Summary introduction

You may also have stiffness, redness, heat and a decreased range of movement.

Joint swelling can make it difficult to perform ordinary tasks at work or at home, such as using a computer mouse and climbing stairs. Chronic (long-term) swelling and discomfort can affect your work, social or family life.

There are things you can try to reduce the swelling on your own. However, you should see your doctor if you think your joint may be infected, or if swelling hasn’t gone down after a few days.

Causes of swollen joints

Swollen joints can happen when there’s more fluid than normal in the tissues around your joints. This is due to inflammation in these tissues, which is part of your body’s natural immune response to tissue damage or infection.

If one joint is swollen, it's usually due to a joint injury, such as a sprain, dislocation or fracture.

If more than one joint is swollen, it may be caused by an underlying condition, such as arthritis. Common types of arthritis are:

  • Osteoarthritis – gradual worsening of pain and swelling that can affect just one or many joints
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – inflammation usually affecting many joints
  • Gout – often causing swelling and pain within your big toe

A hot, swollen joint that develops quickly could be due to septic arthritis – a bacterial infection in your joint. If you suspect you have septic arthritis, you should see your GP or visit A&E as soon as possible.

Other conditions include:

  • Bursitis – swelling and tenderness usually in one joint caused by inflammation of the jelly-like sac that cushions your joints (bursa)
  • Tendonitis – swelling, pain and sometimes crepitus due to inflammation in a tendon
  • Baker’s cyst – a build-up of fluid at the back of your knee

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

Book an appointment with a Spire GP today

Getting a diagnosis for swollen joints

You should arrange to see your GP if:

  • The swelling lasts for more than a few days
  • The swelling is very painful
  • You have other symptoms, including fever (a sign of septic arthritis)

Your GP will discuss your symptoms and examine your joint(s). They may also arrange for you to have blood tests and imaging tests, such as:

In some cases, your GP can refer you to an orthopaedic consultant for further investigation, such as:

  • Joint aspiration to remove the fluid for examination
  • Arthroscopy (keyhole surgery) to examine your joint and repair it if necessary

Treatments for swollen joints

Treatments depend on the underlying reason for your joint inflammation.

Things you can do at home to help include:

  • Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen)
  • Using a cold pack for around 20 minutes at a time to reduce swelling

 Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics if the swelling is caused by an infection. In some cases, they may offer a joint injection to reduce swelling and pain in the joint.