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Joint Instability

Struggling with loose joints and recurrent pain? Joint instability happens when the tissues supporting a joint, such as muscles, ligaments, and bones, weaken and can no longer keep the bones properly aligned. Find out about joint instability, its impact on your body, and the latest options available for recovery.

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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

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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.

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What Are the Symptoms of Joint Instability?

Instability symptoms depend on which joint it affects.

Symptoms can include:

  • Pain, especially after injury
  • Repeated dislocation of the joint
  • Tenderness
  • A feeling that the joint “gives out”

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How Is Joint Instability Diagnosed?

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

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What Are the Treatment Options for Joint Instability?

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.

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