6 Times Your Joint Pain Is Actually Something More Serious
It's not always an injury that's behind your discomfort. In fact, arthritis symptoms can turn up in more than 100 conditions. Learn how you can help your doctor identify the source of your joint pain.
A GI disorder
Twenty percent of those diagnosed with Crohn's disease (make sure you know the symptoms) or irritable bowel disease (IBD) may also have arthritic symptoms, says Howard R. Smith, MD, director of the Lupus Clinic, Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Diseases at Cleveland Clinic. "I ask patients, 'by the way, do you have diarrhea?'" he says. It's often a surprise, as people rarely think that errant bathroom behavior could be related to joint issues. If a patient says yes, Dr. Smith sends them to a GI specialist, who will assess if a colonoscopy is needed.
Linked to miscarriage
Infertility is heartbreaking, particularly when you get—but can't stay—pregnant. Unfortunately, miscarriages are more common than you might think, though not for the reasons you may have heard. Frequent miscarriages can be a sign of undetected lupus, says Dr. Smith. Lupus is an autoimmune condition that can affect your kidneys, brain, and blood vessel problems. More than 90 percent of patients experience joint or muscle pain. Antiphospholipid antibodies may be responsible for miscarriage. In addition, those who have lupus are also more likely to have preeclampsia, a condition marked by high blood pressure that can lead to dangerous complications for mom and baby.
A skin condition
"Why would you think a skin rash is related to joint pain?" says Dr. Smith. Most people don't, but as a rheumatologist he's always on the lookout for skin symptoms because of a condition called psoriatic arthritis, which affects up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis. This is an inflammatory disease marked by raised, red, scaly patches on the skin. The condition also attacks joints and can cause permanent damage if left untreated. Your PCP can diagnose it with a physical exam, blood tests or an MRI. You may also be referred to a rheumatologist for treatment.
Spread through the bite of a tick that's infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, Lyme infections can be very problematic. Often, people have no idea they've been bitten—and that tell-tale bulls-eye rash either doesn't occur or isn't noticed in up to one-quarter of infected people. Left untreated, Lyme can develop into arthritis in the joints—particularly pain or swelling in the knees. A blood tests can screen for the disease. If you find an attached tick on your skin, talk to your doctor, and keep an eye out for these 18 silent signs of Lyme disease.
Often, symptoms of a thyroid problem can masquerade as many other issues, including stress and poor sleep. Because your thyroid (the butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck) is in charge of so many body functions, an underactive gland (called hypothyroidism) slows your metabolism, leading to weight gain, constipation, fatigue, a sensitivity to cold, and, yes, joint pain. Talk to your doctor if you're having these unexplained symptoms. A simple blood test can make the diagnosis.
Very rarely, bone cancer
Bone cancer only accounts for one percent of all cancers, with 2,300 new diagnoses made each year in the United States. That means it certainly won't be the first suspect in joint pain. However, it can be the source of discomfort (which may be persistent or come and go) and swelling around the affected bone. Your doctor may order imaging tests to investigate further.
When to talk to your doctor
If joint pain is bothering you or disrupting your quality of life, Dr. Smith recommends seeing your PCP, who will examine you and make the call if they think your joint pain is limited to the joint or a sign of a systemic disease. At that point, they may refer you to a rheumatologist who can run additional tests to identify the source. "There are over 100 different types of arthritis, and it can affect every organ of your body," he says. Check out these doctors' tips for preventing arthritis.
Prepare for your appointment
Because so many of the symptoms seem unrelated, joint pain can be very difficult to diagnose—putting two-and-two together is tricky. "Pay attention and be in tune with what's going on in your body—even the littlest thing," says Dr. Smith. Make a list of anything unusual, whether it seems connected to your joint pain or not. This will help you remember to flag potentially crucial info that can point to a diagnosis and help you make the most of your doctor's appointment. "Symptoms may be totally unrelated, but the doctor tries to put everything together to figure out if they're important," he says. This is one case where more information is always better.