Charcot's joints is a progressive degenerative disease of the joints caused by nerve damage resulting in the loss of ability to feel pain in the joint and instability of the joint.
Charcot's joints, also called neuropathic joint disease, is the result of two conditions present in the joint. The first factor is the inability to feel pain in the joint due to nerve damage. The second factor is that injuries to the joint go unnoticed leading to instability and making the joint more susceptible to further injury. Repeated small injuries, strains and even fractures can go unnoticed until finally the joint is permanently destroyed. Loss of the protective sensation of pain is what leads to the disintegration of the joint and often leads to deformity in the joint.
Although this condition can affect any joint, the knee is the joint most commonly involved. In individuals with diabetes mellitus, the foot is most commonly affected. The disease can involve only one joint or it may affect two or three joints. More than three affected joints is very rare. In all cases, the specific joint(s) affected depends on the location of the nerve damage.
Causes and symptoms
Many diseases and injuries can interfere with the ability to feel pain. Conditions such as diabetes mellitus, spinal injuries and diseases, alcoholism, and even syphilis can all lead to a loss of the ability to feel pain in some areas. Lack of pain sensation may also be congenital.
The symptoms of Charcot's joints can go unnoticed for some time and may be confused with osteoarthritis in the beginning. Swelling and stiffness in a joint without the expected pain, or with less pain than would be expected, are the primary symptoms of this condition. As the condition progresses, however, the joint can become very painful due to fluid build-up and bony growths.
Charcot's joints is suspected when a person with a disease that impairs pain sensation exhibits painless swelling and/or stiffness in a joint. Standard x rays will show damage to the joint, and may also show abnormal bone growth and calcium deposits. Floating bone fragments from previous injuries may also be visible.
In the early stages of Charcot's joints, braces to stabilize the joints can help stop or minimize the damage. When the disease has progressed beyond braces, surgery can sometimes repair the joint. If the damage is extensive, an artificial joint may be necessary.
Treatment of the disease causing loss of pain perception may help to slow the damage to the joints.
Preventing or effectively managing the underlying disease can slow or in some cases reverse joint damage, but the condition cannot be prevented.
Resnick, Donald. Diagnosis of Bone and Joint Disorders. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1994.