Highly flexible joints can be an asset when you’re a dancer or a musician. This flexibility is usually explained by stretchier than average connective tissue (such as ligaments), which allows the joints a larger range of motion, and this abnormality does not always cause any obvious problems. However, for some people, joint hypermobility actually leads to widespread symptoms that have a negative impact on the quality of life. Many do not even realize that their joint hypermobility is responsible for their health struggles, as they are simply used to the way their joints move.
If you notice several of the following signs, it’s worth talking to your doctor about whether you’re dealing with problems caused by excessive flexibility. Physical therapy, muscle strengthening exercises and everyday lifestyle changes (such as acquiring new shoes) can make a huge difference to the discomfort you feel.
1. Widespread musculoskeletal pain and stiffness
If you experience aches and pains all over your body but have been reassured that you do not have the high levels of inflammation associated with diseases like arthritis, you may be hypermobile. While it does not typically hurt to extend joints far part their normal range of motion, the pain comes later in the wake of injuries you didn’t know you were sustaining.
Consequently, hypermobile people also often feel stiffness in places like the shoulders, hips and ankles hours after accidentally overextending their joints. Pain can also be caused by all the additional work that your muscles need to do just to keep your “loose” joints stable, which is why careful strength training offers a potential avenue for pain reduction in hypermobile patients.
2. Dislocations and subluxations
People who repeatedly dislocate joints like the shoulder may have an underlying problem with joint hypermobility. However, it’s also important to be aware of less dramatic subluxations or “partial dislocations.” For example, you might feel like your knee or ankle is sliding out of place (which can be intensely painful), yet notice that it can be gently moved back into place.
3. History of sprains and tears (especially in the ankles)
Hypermobility is regularly diagnosed in those who seem to keep injuring themselves, suffering from problems like Achilles tendonitis, bursitis, and torn ligaments. Ankle instability (and associated injury) is especially common. Typically, the ankle ligaments are too elastic and the ankle joints can, therefore, move far beyond their appropriate range.
You may feel like your ankle “gives way” and falls to one side at unexpected times, leading to regular sprains and swelling. In addition, it’s worth noting that chronic weakness of the ankles can transmit problems upwards, affecting the joints of the knees, hips, and back.
4. Poor proprioception
The word “proprioception” refers to your ability to sense where your body is in space and your awareness of movement in your joints. People with joint hypermobility tend to have impaired proprioception, leading to apparent clumsiness. If you’re always walking into doorframes, failing to catch things people throw at you and tripping up in the street, joint laxity may be the explanation.
5. Autonomic problems
A large number of people with joint hypermobility also experience abnormalities of the autonomic nervous system (which controls unconscious bodily functions like your heartbeat), leading to fainting or episodes of dizziness. Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome is particularly common, leading the aforementioned symptoms of lightheadedness to appear when changing position.
6. Abnormal sensations
When you first experience shooting pains, numbness or tingling sensations, your first worry may be that you are suffering a stroke or developing multiple sclerosis. However, if such serious causes have been ruled out, hypermobility is worth considering. This type of discomfort is called neuropathic pain, and it may be caused by nerve irritation associated with hyperextending joints.
7. Digestive difficulties
One surprising indication of hypermobility is digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation. It is thought that this connection is explained by lax connective tissue in the stomach and intestines. While issues such as IBS need not be tied to connective tissue problems if seen in isolation, they can be suggestive of hypermobility when paired with symptoms like muscle pain and recurring sprains.
8. Early-onset osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis (the “wear and tear” type of arthritis) develops more quickly in loose joints, so if you are hypermobile then you may receive a diagnosis of arthritis in the shoulders, neck or back earlier in life than expected. Working to strengthen the muscles that support your loose joints can play a role in reducing further worsening of osteoarthritis.
9. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJD)
Finally, looseness in the jaw joint can cause pain in the surrounding muscles, which can spread well beyond the mouth area and start causing discomfort in places like the ears and neck. Since this condition is worsened by grinding the teeth during the night, a protective splint can help to protect the joint. However, as with osteoarthritis, sprains and chronic pain, the key to long-term relief may lie in strengthening the muscles around the joint.