What causes joint swelling?

Joint swelling is commonly caused by injuries to the joint, including overuse or sprains, or by arthritis. However, there are a number of other underlying conditions and diseases that may also cause joint swelling.

Causes of joint swelling

Joint swelling may be caused by many events or conditions including:

  • Aging (general degeneration of the joints)
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Broken bone
  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
  • Gout (type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints)
  • Joint dislocation
  • Joint injury
  • Joint surgery
  • Neuropathic arthropathy (progressive degenerative disease of the bones in the joint)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatic fever (complication of strep throat)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
  • Sprains

Serious or life-threatening causes of joint swelling

In some cases, joint swelling may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. These include:

  • Hemarthrosis (internal bleeding into the joint)
  • Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis following trauma, surgery, animal bite, other infections

Questions for diagnosing the cause of joint swelling

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your joint swelling including:

  • When did your joint swelling start?
  • Which joint is experiencing symptoms?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Have you had recent joint surgery?
  • Have you recently experienced an animal bite?
  • Have you recently traveled out of the country? (tuberculosis)
  • Do you have any other medical conditions?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Does the swelling stay consistent or does it vary through the day?
  • Have you had previous joint injuries or symptoms?
  • Is there anything you have tried that makes the swelling better or worse?

What are the potential complications of joint swelling?

Joint swelling is often caused by minor injuries to the joint, including overuse or sprains. However, joint swelling may also be a sign of more serious injuries, such as a broken bone, or underlying diseases, such as arthritis.

Because joint swelling can be due to serious injuries or diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Disability
  • Joint deformity and destruction
  • Loss of strength
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of the joint)
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Spread of infection


  1. Arthritis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002223/.
  2. Arthritis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/.
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  4. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.

What is joint swelling?

Joint swelling, or joint effusion, is the enlargement of one or more of your joints due to an increase in the amount of fluid in the joint. Joint swelling may be caused by injury, such as a broken bone, or by an underlying medical condition or disease, such as arthritis or an infection. The fluid can be blood, pus, or a clear exudate.... Read more about joint swellingintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with joint swelling?

Joint swelling may accompany other symptoms, which can vary depending on the underlying injury, disease, disorder or condition.

Common symptoms that may occur along with joint swelling

Joint swelling may be accompanied by other symptoms including:

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 6, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles

What's Causing Your Symptoms?