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​Joint Instability

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What Is Joint Instability?

Instability happens when tissues — such as muscles, ligaments, and bones — weaken. Once they are weak, they no longer hold the bones of the joint in proper place.

Joints are flexible, allowing for movement. However, they also must be stable and strong.

Strong ligaments hold the bones of joints in place while the joints are in motion and at rest. Muscles and tendons hold the bones of the joints in place most often when moving.

Types of joint instability

Common cases of joint instability occur in the:

  • Ankle
  • Big toe
  • Elbow
  • Hip
  • Knee
  • Neck
  • Shoulder
  • Thumb

What causes instability?

Risk factors that may cause joint instability include:

  • Injury — such as a fall — can cause a dislocation of a joint or stretch or tear the ligaments.
  • Overuse or repeating a movement over time can cause instability. Swimming, for example, can lead to shoulder instability.
  • Multidirectional instability — known as being “double jointed” — happens to some people who are born with looser joints than most others.

Why choose UPMC for instability treatment?

UPMC Orthopaedic Care provides a range of treatments for joint instability. Our skilled surgeons are leaders in repairing unstable joints.

We deliver our diagnoses and treatments in state-of-the-art facilities, offering the right care for your individual needs. 

Learn more about joint instability and injuries

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Joint Instability Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of joint instability

Instability symptoms depend on which joint it affects.

Symptoms can include:

Diagnosing joint instability

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. He or she will move the joint to test the strength and looseness of the tissues surrounding the joint.

You may also need imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays, for images of the bones of the affected joint
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which allows your doctor to see the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and tendons 

Learn more about joint instability prevention and diagnostic tests

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Joint Instability Treatment and Surgery

The treatment of instability depends on the location of the joint.

Treatment options range from conservative to more aggressive.

Nonsurgical joint instability treatment

Conservative treatments include:

  • Rest
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Using a splint or brace on the affected joint

Joint instability surgery options

If conservative treatments do not help your joint instability, your doctor may suggest surgery to repair the ligaments so the joint regains stability.

Instability surgeries can be minimally invasive or open.

  • In a minimally invasive procedure, your UPMC orthopaedic surgeon inserts surgical instruments and a small camera through tiny incisions.
  • In open surgery, your surgeon will make a larger incision. This permits him or her to directly see the body structures in question.

After instability surgery, you may need to keep the affected joint still.

A period of rehab can follow to help recover strength and range of motion. 

Learn more about joint instability treatments

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UPMC's HealthBeat Blog:

From our Health Library: