Post-traumatic arthritis causes stiffness and pain in your affected joints after an injury. You probably won’t need surgery, but it might take a few months to feel better. Any injury to your joints (like a car accident or sports injury) can cause 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.
Osteoarthritis is caused by the cartilage around your joints wearing out over time, usually many years. It’s the most common cause of arthritis.
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.
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.
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 of post-traumatic arthritis include:
Any injury to your joints can cause post-traumatic arthritis. Injuries that cause post-traumatic arthritis include:
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.
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.
After a physical exam, you might need at least one of a few imaging tests:
Post-traumatic arthritis treatment includes:
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:
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.
Side effects of NSAIDs include:
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.
Follow these general safety tips to reduce your risk of an injury:
Post-traumatic arthritis is the result of traumas and accidents, so you can’t prevent it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Go to the emergency room if you experience any of the following:
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.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/01/2021.
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