Tips for Describing Your Joint Pain to Your Orthopedic Surgeon

Article featured on Arkansas Surgical Hospital

Joint pain can be debilitating, limiting daily activities and draining you both physically and emotionally.  In many instances, joint discomfort is the result of some type of arthritis.  There are various treatment options, including medications, physical therapy, injections, alternative therapies, and surgical solutions, depending on the severity of your joint pain and the damage to the joints.

Is It Joint Pain or Bone Pain?

Accurately describing your joint pain to your orthopedic surgeon can help them determine what treatment is best for you.  Joint pain is different from bone pain and can vary in sensation and severity.  Clearly explaining the feeling is crucial to appropriate diagnosis and treatment.  Bone pain is typically sharp and localized to a specific area, while joint pain tends to be more of an ache and occurs only in the affect joints, not all along a bone.  However, if the joint damage is severe, it may feel quite intense due to missing or damaged cartilage leading to bones grinding against each other.  Joint pain often increases with overactivity or too much weight on the joint.

Be Accurate When Describing Joint Pain

Saying that your joints are stiff isn’t helpful to your doctor or surgeon because it is too vague.  Pinpointing how much pain you’re in, what kind of pain you’re feeling, and how it impacts your ability to use the joints are all part of describing pain accurately.  Osteoarthritis pain tends to feel different from rheumatoid arthritis and other sources of joint pain, so be precise and thorough.  The more detailed your description is, the easier it is for your surgeon to determine the root of the problem.

Where is the Pain Located?

If you have joint pain in your knees, explain whether you feel it in the kneecap area, the back of the joint, or on the sides.  The knee’s complex ligaments and bone structure mean there is more than one kind of knee joint pain.  If you have joint pain in the hands, tell your doctor which joints are affected.  For instance, osteoarthritis is more common in the joints at the end of the fingers, while rheumatoid arthritis isn’t as likely in these joints.  Narrow down the area as much as possible.

What Kind of Pain Is It?

There are many kinds of pain, and the form it takes is critical when diagnosing and treating joint issues.  Descriptive words are helpful, as are comparisons such as, “It feels like something is caught in the joint.”  Here are some excellent descriptions you can use:

  • Crunching or Grinding.  When bones are rubbing against each other, you may feel like the joint is grinding rather than moving smoothly.  It may feel like gravel in the joint.
  • Snapping, Crackling, or Popping.  This is the sensation of something releasing or popping out of place and is often accompanied by a popping sound.  Osteoarthritis often leads to snapping or crackling in the joints.
  • Throbbing.  If the joint pain feels like it pulses, make sure your surgeon knows.
  • Dull or Achy.  Your pain can be dull (rather like a bruise) but still be severe.  Dull pain or aching can be an underlying, constant pain with periodic flares of other kinds of pain such as stabbing or burning sensations.
  • Stabbing.  Does it feel like somebody stuck a knife in your joint?  Your surgeon needs to know if the stabbing pain is consistent, periodic, or linked to any activities or other circumstances such as standing for long periods.
  • Burning.  Some patients describe burning pain as the joint burning from the inside or a hot sensation in the joints.
  • Radiating.  If you have pain that starts in one area then travels toward another, it is described as radiating pain.  Some people experience hip pain that radiates down the leg when they try to put weight on it.  This may indicate nerve involvement in addition to problems with the joint itself.

The When and Why of Joint Pain

Joint pain isn’t always constant.  It can come and go depending on what you’re doing and the time of day.  Make sure your surgeon knows if your pain seems to flare when you participate in in certain activities or gets worse during specific times.  If your pain is more significant when you wake up in the morning or is aggravated after activities, tell your doctor.  Some forms of arthritis may cause greater pain after you’ve been moving around a lot, while others may be worse after you’ve been inactive for too long.  If your joints lock up, give way, or feel weak or unstable, your doctor needs to know this, particularly if increased pain results.

The duration of your pain is another element of the “when” of joint pain.  While your knees or hips may hurt a lot when you first wake up in the morning, how long it lasts can indicate whether you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.  It can also help define the severity of the problem.  Does the discomfort after exercising last 30 minutes or several hours?  Is the pain worse when walking up a hill or a flight of stairs?  Details like this can aid your surgeon in a correct arthritis diagnosis.

Finally, be sure to inform your doctor of any other elements that affect your joint pain.  Pain that flares during certain types of weather, when you’re under stress, or when you are tired may help pinpoint an arthritis diagnosis or indicate other underlying issues.

The Severity of Joint Pain

Many physicians use a pain scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning little to no pain and 10 meaning unbearable pain.  No one experiences pain the same way others do, but the pain scale helps doctors get an idea of how severe your discomfort is and how much it impacts your life.

  • 0 = No pain
  • 1 = Occasional, minimal pain
  • 2 = Mildly annoying, not constant
  • 3 = Painful enough to distract you if not busy
  • 4 = Maybe distracting even when occupied
  • 5 = Can’t be ignored for long stretches, but you can still do things (although uncomfortably)
  • 6 = Can’t ignore your pain
  • 7 = Difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and socializing
  • 8 = Physical limitations and difficulty with normal functioning, nausea, and dizziness
  • 9 = Crying, inability to speak, possibly passing out from the pain
  • 10 = Unconsciousness

Successfully Treating Arthritis Pain

The two most common forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, generally require different approaches, making the proper diagnosis critical when you’re suffering from joint pain.  Arthritis surgery is one of many options available to minimize discomfort and increase range of motion.  Still, your surgeon will usually recommend it only after you’ve tried other treatments such as medications and physical therapy.

Arthritis pain may be the result of a variety of triggers, including:

  • Cracks or chips in the affected bones
  • Inflammation of the tendons and muscles around arthritic joints
  • Bone spurs
  • Muscle spasms caused by irritation from damaged bone
  • Decreased blood flow in arthritic joints
  • Loss of synovium between the bones

With so many potential causes of joint pain and a wide range of treatment options, accurately describing your pain to your surgeon is the first step in finding the best treatment for you and getting you back to doing the activities you enjoy.

The Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Center of Oregon is an award-winning, board-certified orthopedic group located in downtown Portland Oregon. We utilize both surgical and nonsurgical means to treat musculoskeletal trauma, spine diseases, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors and congenital disorders.

Our mission is to return our patients back to pain-free mobility and full strength as quickly and painlessly as possible using both surgical and non-surgical orthopedic procedures.

Our expert physicians provide leading-edge, comprehensive care in the diagnosis and treatment of orthopedic conditions, including total joint replacement and sports medicine. We apply the latest state-of-the-art techniques in order to return our patients to their active lifestyle.

If you’re looking for compassionate, expert orthopedic surgeons in Portland Oregon, contact OSM today.


1515 NW 18th Ave, 3rd Floor
Portland, OR 97209