What is Joint Instability?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 11 December 2019
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Joint instability is a lack of support in the joints, which puts a person at risk for the joints to become displaced or dislocated, leading to injury. People can develop instability in a number of ways. Treatment options vary, depending on the severity of the condition, the joints involved, and the cause. It is advisable to seek medical treatment for joint instability, as it can expose people to the risk of serious injuries.

Stability for the joints is provided by the joint capsule that surrounds each joint, the ligaments, neighboring muscles, and surrounding bones. These systems work together to provide complete articulation to the joints of the body, allowing them to bend and flex. Individual joints are designed differently to accommodate needs, such as rotation or folding.

When instability develops, one or more of the systems that normally stabilize a joint fail to work properly. The joint can be subject to displacement, meaning that it is pushed out of place. It can also be subject to dislocation, disarticulating entirely. Both of these experiences can be very painful and they can also lead to tears in muscles and ligaments. People with instability in key joints can experience injuries, such as falls, as a result of not being able to balance safely.


Sometimes, joint instability is caused by congenital or genetic conditions. Soft tissue disorders can be a cause, as can disorders involving the bone. It can also be acquired through degenerative diseases that attack the joints and surrounding tissues. As joint function declines, patients can develop chronic pain and other joints may be affected as well.

Medical imaging studies can be used to look at a joint to determine the source of the instability. Treatments can include physical therapy to strengthen the joints, medications to address pain and inflammation, supplements to rebuild joint tissues, and surgery in some cases. Surgery can be used to implant an artificial joint or to correct problems inside the joint that are leading to instability.

An orthopedic doctor is usually the first stop for a person with joint instability. Orthopedic doctors are familiar with the musculoskeletal system and can provide appropriate diagnosis and treatment options. A genetic specialist may also be consulted if there is a belief that a genetic condition is involved. People with a family history of joint disease may want to bring this up with the doctor, as this could be an important diagnostic clue to explain why a patient has developed joint instability.


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