What is post-traumatic arthritis?
Post-traumatic arthritis is inflammation in your joints that forms after you’ve experienced a trauma. It develops quickly after an injury instead of over years of wear and tear like other forms of arthritis.
It’s usually a temporary issue, and many people recover in a few months. Sometimes, post-traumatic arthritis last longer and becomes a chronic (long-term) condition. It’s rare, but you might need surgery if your symptoms are severe and limit your quality of life. Most people can manage their post-traumatic arthritis with lifestyle changes and exercise, often as part of their recovery plan from their original injury.
What is the difference between post-traumatic arthritis and osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is caused by the cartilage around your joints wearing out over time, usually many years. It’s the most common cause of arthritis.
Who does post-traumatic arthritis affect?
Anyone can be affected by post-traumatic arthritis because it’s caused by traumas and injuries. Unlike most forms of arthritis, post-traumatic arthritis is more common in younger people — including kids and teens — than older adults.
How common is post-traumatic arthritis?
Post-traumatic arthritis affects more than 5 million people every year. It’s around 10% of all osteoarthritis cases.
You’re seven times more likely to develop arthritis in an injured joint than people who’ve never experienced trauma to their joint.
How does post-traumatic arthritis affect my body?
Post-traumatic arthritis causes stiffness and pain in your affected joints. Depending on which of your joints are impacted, it’ll be hard to walk, run, play sports or move like you’re used to. The most common joints affected by post-traumatic arthritis include:
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis?
Symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis include:
- Tenderness or sensitivity to touch.
What causes post-traumatic arthritis?
Any injury to your joints can cause post-traumatic arthritis. Injuries that cause post-traumatic arthritis include:
- Car accidents.
- Sports injuries.
Anything that damages your bones can wear down the cartilage in your joints faster than usual. This is especially true if you re-injure the same joint.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is post-traumatic arthritis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will diagnose post-traumatic arthritis with a physical exam and imaging tests. Your provider will move your joint, ask you about your symptoms and compare your joint and its range of motion (how far you can move part of your body) to what it was before your injury — if possible.
What tests are done to diagnose post-traumatic arthritis?
After a physical exam, you might need at least one of a few imaging tests:
- X-rays: An X-ray will confirm show how damaged the bones in your joint are.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Your provider might use an MRI to get a complete picture of the damage to your joint and the area around it. This will show them your bones and the tissue around them.
- CT scan: If you need surgery, your provider or surgeon needs to know exactly how damaged your joint is. A CT scan will give them a more detailed picture of your bones and the surrounding tissue than an X-ray.
Management and Treatment
How is post-traumatic arthritis treated?
Post-traumatic arthritis treatment includes:
- Weight loss: Being overweight can put extra stress on your joints.
- Low-impact exercise: Activities like swimming or biking can help you move your joint and reduce pain while not putting your full weight onto your joints.
- Physical therapy: Your provider will create customized exercises and movements to increase your strength and flexibility around your affected joint.
- Wearing a brace: A brace around your joint can help reduce tension on it and hold it in place.
Post-traumatic arthritis surgery
Surgery for post-traumatic arthritis is rare and is usually only an option when your arthritis is so severe that it’s limiting your quality of life. If other treatments aren’t working or you’re still experiencing intense pain after several months, your provider might recommend surgery. Post-traumatic arthritis surgery includes:
- Debridement: Debridement is how surgeons refer to cleaning up something in your body. This means removing damaged tissue or reshaping your bones to fix your arthritis.
- Joint fusion (arthrodesis): Your surgeon will insert a plate and screws to keep the bones of your joint together. You’ll have a more stable, pain-free joint, but will have limited flexibility and movement.
- Joint replacement (arthroplasty): Your surgeon will replace your damaged joint with an artificial joint (made of metal, ceramic or plastic).
What medications/treatments are used?
Over-the-counter NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen can lead to bleeding and other complications after surgery. Your surgeon will talk to you about the medications you can take to reduce pain after your surgery.
Complications/side effects of the treatment
Side effects of NSAIDs include:
- Stomach pain.
- Bowel complications.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
Treating arthritis isn’t a quick fix, and it might take a few months for your symptoms to go away, but you should feel a little better as soon as you start new exercises or physical therapy.
How can I reduce my risk for post-traumatic arthritis?
Follow these general safety tips to reduce your risk of an injury:
- Always wear your seatbelt.
- Wear the right protective equipment for all activities and sports.
- Make sure your home and workspace are free from clutter that could trip you or others.
- Always use the proper tools or equipment at home to reach things. Never stand on chairs, tables or countertops.
How can I prevent post-traumatic arthritis?
Post-traumatic arthritis is the result of traumas and accidents, so you can’t prevent it.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have post-traumatic arthritis?
You should expect to feel some discomfort, but treatment should reduce your pain, stiffness and other symptoms. How long it takes to feel better depends on the original trauma that caused your arthritis. More serious injuries have longer recovery timelines and are more likely to experience complications. Talk to your provider about your specific injury and post-traumatic arthritis.
How long does post-traumatic arthritis last?
Most people have post-traumatic arthritis short-term, usually around a few months. Your symptoms might go away as your body recovers from your trauma. If you experience post-traumatic arthritis symptoms for longer than six months you could have chronic post-traumatic arthritis, which can last for the rest of your life.
Will I need to miss work or school?
If you can do your job or schoolwork without aggravating your arthritis symptoms, you shouldn’t need to miss work or school.
Talk to your healthcare provider or surgeon before resuming any physical activities while you’re recovering.
What is the outlook for post-traumatic arthritis?
Post-traumatic arthritis is something you might only have for a few months. But, if you have chronic post-traumatic arthritis, you’ll have to manage it as a long-term condition. Your provider will help you find the best ways to manage your specific symptoms while you heal.
How can I manage the symptoms of post-traumatic arthritis?
The best way to manage your post-traumatic arthritis symptoms is to move and exercise your joints. Arthritis can get worse over time if it’s not treated. Follow the instructions your provider or physical therapist give you. Talk to your provider about any changes in your symptoms, especially if they get worse.
When should I go to the emergency room?
Go to the emergency room if you experience any of the following:
- Intense pain.
- You can’t move a part of your body that you normally can.
- A part of your body is noticeably different looking or out of its usual place.
- New bruising that appears at the same time as any of these other symptoms.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- How long will my post-traumatic arthritis last?
- What can I do to reduce my symptoms?
- What activities should I avoid while I’m healing?
- Will I need surgery?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’ve experienced a trauma, you’ve already been through so much, and finding out you have arthritis after the fact can be frustrating. Try to remember that for most people, post-traumatic arthritis is a temporary hurdle on your road to recovery. Even if arthritis ends up being a long-term issue, it’s manageable.
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