Joint effusions can be identified by swelling of the joint.
A joint effusion is the excessive accumulation of fluid around a joint. This can cause swelling of the joint, which can be painful and lead to reduced range of movement of the joint.
Joint effusions can be painful but are highly treatable. See below for signs and symptoms to look out for if you suspect you might have a joint effusion.
Joint effusion refers to the accumulation of intra-articular fluid in between the joint surfaces. This can occur at any joint but commonly involves the knee joint, known as knee effusion.1 Knee effusions are the most common because they are weight-bearing and can be more susceptible to overuse.1 Some accumulation of intra-articular fluid is normal and can be present in healthy individuals; however, when this becomes excessive, it can become a joint effusion.
Causes of joint effusion
The causes of joint effusion can include injury to the joint; this can be as a result of falls, sports injuries or other accidents. Other causes include overuse of the joint. ‘Wear and tear’ of the joint can lead to osteoarthritis and cause the development of joint effusion and additional inflammation. Infections or chronic systemic disease can also cause joint effusion.1 In some cases, joint effusions may develop after a surgical procedure.2
Signs and symptoms of joint effusion
Often, joint effusion presents in patients as a swollen knee. However, many different conditions or injuries present in the same way, so it is difficult to assess the correct cause without a thorough examination by a medical professional.1 Other differential diagnoses include osteoarthritis, an autoimmune disease, an injury, hemarthrosis, and osteonecrosis. Alongside a swollen knee, patients with a joint effusion may experience pain when extending the knee joint.1
Management and treatment for joint effusion
For patients with a small level of swelling of the joint, it is typically advisable to use ice packs, splints, and painkillers to manage and treat the condition. A doctor might prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to target the inflammation. In cases where a patient has a large and painful joint effusion, the swelling might first need to be drained. After the intra-articular fluid (fluid within the joint) has been tested, there is the potential for treatment to include intra-articular steroids to be used if an infection has been ruled out.1
Effective treatment of a joint effusion includes interdisciplinary care and communication between a team of medical professionals, including pharmacists and infectious disease professionals and often a physiotherapist during the early stages of treatment.1
Diagnosis of a joint effusion is typically done after taking the history of the patient and then a thorough physical examination.1 Typical information that a doctor would need to ask for include the duration of symptoms, the type of onset of symptoms (e.g., sudden or gradual), and any history of injury or previous surgery. The doctor may also require an X-ray examination in order to rule out the occurrence of alternative injuries and diagnoses.
In all cases of unexplained joint effusion, it may be necessary to take a sample of the intra-articular fluid in the joint. This can help the medical professional understand the cause of the joint effusion or whether there is a fracture.1
How can I prevent joint effusion?
Joint effusions cannot be prevented in the majority of cases as they can be the result of unpreventable infections and chronic systemic disease. However, it is possible to avoid overuse of the joint by reducing activity.
How common is a joint effusion?
Small joint effusions are common in healthy individuals. These are asymptomatic and require no treatment. However, when the production of intra-articular fluid becomes excessive, it is likely to cause pain and need treatment.
Who is at risk of developing a joint effusion?
People who have undertaken a surgical procedure and people who have experienced infections in the area in question are at a greater risk of developing a joint effusion. These individuals should take extra care and look out for symptoms, as provided above.
What can I expect if I have a joint effusion?
If you have a joint effusion, you can expect to see abnormal swelling in the area. You might also experience pain and limited mobility of the joint. However, if treated sufficiently and quickly, it is possible to make a full recovery.
When should I see a doctor?
If you suspect that you might have a joint effusion, it is important to visit your GP as soon as possible. This is because delayed treatment can result in complications such as limitation of joint function. Similarly, a bacterial infection can result in permanent damage to the joint.
In conclusion, a joint effusion is the presence of excessive intra-articular fluid around the joint. This can lead to abnormal swelling. Joint effusions can be diagnosed by a medical professional by taking a patient history and undergoing a physical examination. Joint effusions are treatable through a variety of methods depending on the type of joint affected and the severity of the joint effusion.
- Gerena LA, Mabrouk A, DeCastro A. Knee Effusion. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Jul 4]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532279/
- Evans RC. INTRODUCTION. In: Evans RC, editor. Illustrated Orthopedic Physical Assessment (Third Edition) [Internet]. St. Louis: Mosby; 2009 [cited 2023 Jul 6]. p. xv. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780323045322500055