Joint hypermobility: emerging disease or illness behaviour?

Joint hypermobility: emerging disease or illness behaviour | by Rodney Grahame

Joint hypermobility syndrome is a common clinical entity which is much misunderstood, overlooked, misdiagnosed and mistreated. It was first described in the 1960s as a purely musculoskeletal condition due to joint laxity and hypermobility occurring in otherwise healthy individuals.

Some four decades later it is now perceived to be a multi-systemic heritable dis- order of connective tissue with manifestations occurring far beyond the confines of the locomotor system and with ramifications potentially affecting most, if not all, of the bodily systems in one way or another.

Most authorities in the field find it clinically indistinguishable from EDS type III, the Ehlers-Danlos syndrome hypermobility type.

In > 50% of patients the diagnosis is delayed for 10 years. Failure to diagnose and treat the condition correctly results in needless pain and suffering and in many patients to a progressive decline in their quality of life and in some to a loss of independence.  


There is a common tendency in medicine when faced with medically unexplained symptoms to assume that they are psychogenic in origin.

This is a high-risk approach that can have disastrous consequences. The joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS) story is a good illustration of this.

The realisation that the joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS), as HMS is now principally known, is a multi-systemic illness rather than a mild (seemingly trivial) mechanical disorder of lax joints in otherwise healthy subjects was slow to dawn and even slower to consolidate.

When the evidence came, it did so from multiple and sometimes unlikely sources. It is a process that is still unravelling as it becomes increasingly clear to hypermobility-watchers that there is hardly a single medical specialty that is untouched by the condition

HMS was regarded (by rheumatologists) as a purely rheumatological disorder in otherwise healthy individuals who happened to be at the upper end of a spectrum of normal joint mobility.

With the passage of time and the advent of new knowledge, it has become clear to clinicians seeing many of these patients that, to all intents and purposes, the two diseases are indistinguishable from one another.

The tragedy is that it took four decades to achieve this consensus. Sadly, even today, there are sceptics who do not yet accept this hypothesis and fervently advocate the separation of the two conditions. For them (principally, but not exclusively, rheumatologists), lax-jointed patients with HMS are ‘otherwise healthy subjects’ whose extra-articular symptoms are taken to represent illness behaviour, rather than bona fide symptoms of systemic complications of EDS III

Thus far, seven key elements, unearthed over the course of nearly half a century, have served to transform our understanding of the nature of JHS, and thereby shape our current concepts of the condition.

  1. The overlap with established HDCTs (Heritable Connective Tissue Disorder)
  2. The important association with uterine and rectal prolapse
  3. The association with chronic pain
  4. The relevance of anxiety and phobic disorders
  5. The high prevalence of dysautonomias
  6. The impact of gastrointestinal dysmotility
  7. The progression to major physical disability – the new ‘rheumatological disability

Many people who inherit the defect remain symptom-free throughout their lives, whereas others may develop minimal mus- culoskeletal symptoms after unaccustomed exercise. The full panoply of complications does not appear all at once, but gradu- ally over the first 2–3 decades of life.

The natural history of JHS can be seen to comprise three principal phases.

  1. The first phase results from connective tissue laxity and fra- gility and comprises multiple soft tissue injuries, joint and spinal instability and dislocation, and complications of weakness in supporting structures (pelvic floor, herniae and varicose veins).
  2. Phase 2 is the superimposition of non-articular complications: pain amplifi- cation, kinesiophobia deconditioning (widespread chronic pain often described as ‘fibromyalgia) and fatigue (which is often promi- nent and may be misdiagnosed as CFS/ME). It is in this phase that orthostatic intolerance, PoTS and other dysautonomic features as well as GI symptoms make their presence felt.
  3. The final phase is the emergence of psychosocial sequelae such as anxiety or depression, obesity (often associated with comfort eating), work incapacity, isolation and despair. There is often a downward spiral of loss of mobility, self-efficacy and self-esteem as the quality of life diminishes.

The reasons for this decline are complex and multifactorial. At this stage, the patients are severely disabled in spite of the fact that their musculoskeletal system is usually grossly intact. It would appear that the combination of overriding chronic pain (which is largely unresponsive to analgesics) and systemic components (PoTS and GI problems) is the determining factor in this decline.


Far from being a minor disorder occurring in essentially normal individuals, as is perceived by many of our colleagues even today, there is abundant evidence of a multisystemic hypermobility-related disorder that causes much suffering in the community.  

This is an emerging disease, which bears little resemblance to the joint hypermobility diseases originally described in the 1960s. To dismiss disparate symptoms as ‘illness behaviour’ is, in my view, wrong and does much disservice both to our patients and to our reputation as a profession.

More often than not, JHS is still overlooked, misdiagnosed and hence untreated.


2 thoughts on “Joint hypermobility: emerging disease or illness behaviour?

  1. Marti

    This describes me to a “T”. I was dismissed so many times as a child, from my poor mother who had my brother, who at 5 hadn’t managed to walk yet due to his Myelomeningocele spinabifida (but at 44, my big bro is still rocking his forearm canes), at the pediatrician for something or other, and I was being “fussy” at 3 yrs (screaming my head off, really), and the doc asked to take a look. I had Scarlet fever and had burst an eardrum. My mother of course felt *terrible*, but it was just one example of many, of all the focus, my own included, going to my brother. I was told by occupational therapists, doctors, etc., to apply for SSDI in high school. I looked at myself, looked at my brother, and laughed. “No, *that’s*,” I said at the next appt, or really I started carrying the picture with me in my planner the OT made me use, a picture of my brother’s adaptive athletics sports team mid-game, with volunteer referee who was a child of thalidomide (no left arm, right hand at the shoulder, full left leg, right leg ending approximately at the knee of the other with a small foot; he would sit in an electric wheelchair until game time, then clench the whistle between his teeth and run up and down the court with his full leg bent at a 90 degree angle the whole time), “disability. I’m in some pain, but I’m learning how to manage it. I have some memory problems, but I’m learning how to manage it. I have some unstable joints, but I’m learning how to manage them. I can do this!” Now, in my very early 40s, with 10 ortho surgeries under my belt (3 of them emergency), a super-fun case of CPTSD, fighting for SSI (run out of chances for SSDI), needing a home health care worker to keep up my home (I can still dress and bathe myself, just can’t clean and cook), taking more meds than a 90 year old, and can’t currently walk my poor doggo due to injury–dislocated ankle (*OWOWOW*) and thanking all that is Holy for the Biden/Harris Stimulus Relief Package coming down the pike–i know exactly where that money is going, and it’s *just* in time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Wow, what a story! You must have a very high pain threshold to keep soldiering on like you have. I never imagined what it would be to grow up with a “lesser” disability and how the comparisons would be so confusing.



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