What is a Joint Effusion?

Jacquelyn Gilchrist

Joint effusion is another name for joint swelling. A swollen joint occurs when there is an abnormal buildup of fluid in the tissues around it. The knees and ankles are common locations for swollen joints.

Joint effusion can be caused by arthritis.
Joint effusion can be caused by arthritis.

Additional symptoms of joint effusion depend on the cause of the condition. A swollen joint may appear to be puffy. It is also typically associated with pain, and may be stiff and difficult to move. The area may also seem warm and red in appearance.

The knees and ankles are common effusion locations.
The knees and ankles are common effusion locations.

There are many possible causes of joint effusion. It can be a result of a traumatic injury, such as a fracture, dislocation, or sprain. With an injury, the patient may also have internal bleeding from trauma to the tendons, ligaments, or muscles.

X-rays can be taken to help diagnosis the cause of joint effusion.
X-rays can be taken to help diagnosis the cause of joint effusion.

Another possible cause of joint effusion is arthritis. Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that typically occurs due to aging or an injury. The cartilage around the joint becomes worn down, which causes swelling. Osteoarthritis typically occurs in weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, rather than joints like the elbows. The most noticeable symptom of this type of arthritis is severe pain in the area.

Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause severe pain and swollen joints. It also results in joint stiffness and range of motion problems. This disease is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body mistakes healthy tissue for foreign substances, so it attacks itself. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can also cause fatigue, fever, redness or warmth, and loss of appetite.

Gout is another type of arthritis that causes severe joint swelling and pain. It is also identifiable by the joint’s warmth and redness. Severe cases of gout may cause the patient to be unable to bear any weight on the affected joint. For example, the weight of a blanket may be too painful to bear. Joint effusion from gout is caused by uric acid, or tiny crystals, that form deposits in the affected joint.

Patients who experience persistent joint swelling and pain should see their doctor. After taking the patient’s medical history, the doctor will usually conduct a physical exam to diagnose the source of the joint effusion. The doctor will also question the patient about all the symptoms he has experienced. To make an accurate diagnosis, tests such as x-rays and blood tests will be administered. The doctor may also draw fluid out of the joint for testing.

Treatment of joint effusion varies depending on the specific cause. In some cases, the patient can self-treat the condition by resting and applying ice to the area. He may also take over-the-counter, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to alleviate the swelling. Compression wraps, or snug bandages, and elevating the joint above the heart can also help reduce swelling.

If the joint effusion is severe, the doctor may prescribe additional medications, such as corticosteroids, to relieve swelling. He may also recommend that the patient work with a physical therapist for rehabilitation. Often, the specific course of treatment will depend on the cause of the joint swelling.

A diagram of the knee, a joint that is often subject to effusion.
A diagram of the knee, a joint that is often subject to effusion.

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