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Stiff Joints: Why It Happens and How to Find Relief

Why does joint stiffness occur?

With age, stiff joints become a reality for many people. Years of use can take their toll on joints, muscles, and bones. Many people experience stiff joints just after waking up. Lying down for several hours to sleep reduces fluid amounts. That can make moving joints more difficult first thing in the morning.

Joint stiffness may be mild and only impact your mobility for a brief period of time each morning or after sitting for extended periods of time. The stiffness can also be more severe and impact your mobility.

In some cases, pain and inflammation accompany joint stiffness. This may make walking, standing, or putting weight on your joints painful.

Not all stiff joints are the result of age. Many other conditions can cause stiff joints. These include arthritis, lupus, and bursitis. Lifestyle factors, including diet and weight, can also impact joint mobility.

Keep reading to learn more about possible causes and treatments.

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Rheumatoid arthritis

Possible cause #1: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

The most common cause of joint pain is arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one of the most common forms of arthritis, affecting over 1.5 million Americans. Its symptoms typically appear between ages 30 and 60.

RA is a chronic inflammatory disorder. It’s also an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system attacks healthy parts of your body, such as the lining of your joints. This causes inflammation, pain, and stiffness. Over time, it can also cause joint deformity and bone erosion.

RA has no cure, so its symptoms can’t be eliminated entirely. They can be managed through medication and other treatments. However, once the disease is advanced, little can be done to prevent disability.

Check out: 5 treatments for RA back pain »

Osteoarthritis

Possible cause #2: Osteoarthritis (OA)

Another common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is sometimes called degenerative arthritis. It affects nearly 27 million Americans. It’s most common in people over age 65.

This type of arthritis results from wear and tear on your joints. Cartilage, the thin tissue that protects the bones in your joints, wears away with use. Over time, the cartilage can no longer protect your bones.

OA can affect any joint in the body, but it most often affects the:

  • knees
  • hips
  • fingers
  • neck
  • back

As OA progresses, it can begin to cause symptoms other than stiffness. These include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • cracking sounds when the joint is in motion

As the condition worsens, your bones may break more easily, and you could develop bone spurs. In advanced stages of OA, the cartilage disappears. Bones rub against other bones in your joint. This can cause extreme pain, stiffness, and disability.

Treatment for OA can help replace some of the lost cartilage and fluid in your joints. Lifestyle treatments aimed at reducing weight and pressure on joints can be effective too. In severe cases, joint replacement surgery may be necessary.

Learn more: How to ease OA pain »

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Lupus

Possible cause #3: Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease like RA. Your body attacks itself, including your organs and tissues. Lupus that attacks your joints can cause stiffness, pain, and swelling.

Lupus is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms mimic many other conditions. It may take several months for a lupus diagnosis while tests rule out other conditions.

Like RA, lupus is chronic. Once you develop it, you will likely experience symptoms of the condition for the rest of your life. There isn’t a cure, but treatments are effective at reducing and controlling symptoms.

Learn more: Healthy lifestyle choices for managing lupus symptoms »

Bursitis

Possible cause #4: Bursitis

Bursae are tiny fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, ligaments, and muscles in your joints. You develop bursitis when those sacs become inflamed. This condition can cause stiffness and pain in the affected joint.

Bursitis can affect any joint, but it is most common in large joints like the:

  • elbow
  • shoulder
  • hip

Other common sites include the:

  • knee
  • ankle
  • big toe

Bursitis is often temporary, and treatment relies on resting the affected joint for several weeks. This may mean you need to reduce physical activity and keep the joint stationary for periods of time. This allows the bursae to recover and stiffness to resolve.

Learn more: Exercises to relieve hip bursitis pain »

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Gout

Possible cause #5: Gout

Unlike some other possible causes of joint stiffness, gout comes on suddenly. It may appear while you’re asleep, which may make the joints especially painful when you wake up.

Severe, sudden episodes of pain and tenderness in joints characterize gout. Gout can impact any joint. The big toe is frequently the first joint to experience symptoms.

Gout is a type of arthritis. It affects men more often than women, but a woman’s risk for developing gout increases after menopause. Most people will deal with periods of gout symptoms for the rest of their life, but symptoms are treatable.

Learn more: Home remedies for managing gout flare-ups »

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Bone cancer

Possible cause #6: Bone cancer

This is rarely a cause for joint pain and stiffness, but it is a possibility. People with bone cancer may experience joint pain or bone pain. You may also experience swelling or sensitivity near a bone.

Not everyone will have pain, which is why bone cancer may advance and begin causing other symptoms before it’s discovered.

Cancer is treatable, but the outcome depends on several factors. These factors include the size, location, and type of tumor. Treatment options for bone cancer include radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.

Learn more: Bone cancer »

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Traditional treatment

How to find relief

The best way to ease joint stiffness depends on what’s causing it in the first place. If stiffness lasts longer than 30 minutes after you wake up or if symptoms are getting worse, it’s important you seek medical attention.

Diagnosing the underlying problem will help you and your doctor determine the best way to ease stiffness and stop other associated symptoms.

Hot or cold compress

Both temperature extremes may be beneficial for stiff joints.

Apply a cold compress or bag of ice to your stiff joint for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day. This can help reduce inflammation or swelling and ease the joint into movement. It can also dull pain receptors so you experience less pain.

Heat is also therapeutic to joints and muscles. Use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or warm water from a shower or bath to relax muscles and increase circulation.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication

Many mild symptoms of joint pain can be relieved by OTC medicines. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly used medication for arthritis. Generic names for NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.

Steroids

If inflammation and swelling in the joint cause joint stiffness, steroids may be a treatment option. Swelling and inflammation are common with arthritis. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation. When inflammation decreases, joint pain and stiffness decrease too.

Steroids may not be beneficial for people with advanced arthritis. In some cases, relief may be short-lived, and future steroid injections may not be as effective.

Exercise

Exercise and physical therapy may help increase joint mobility, which can reduce stiffness.

It’s also a great way to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. Carrying around excess pounds can increase your risk for certain conditions that cause joint pain and stiffness.

If you’re unsure how to begin exercising or are having difficulty with movement, talk with your doctor or a trained physical therapist. Exercise is an easy way to relieve pain and stiffness, but you can aggravate certain conditions if you don’t take precautions before beginning an exercise plan.

Learn more: How to manage morning stiffness »

Natural remedies

Natural remedies for pain relief

Complementary and alternative medicine treatments may also hold some promise for easing stiff joints. Here are three that may help:

Fish oil supplements

Researchers in one 2012 study found that people who take fish oil reported fewer episodes of morning joint stiffness and pain.

Fish oil contains the unsaturated fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Adding fish dishes to your weekly meal plan might help, too, because they contain omega-3 fatty acids.

A typical dosage for fish oil supplements is 300 milligrams (mg) per day. You should read bottle labels to determine how many milligrams of omega-3s are in each supplement.

Be sure to talk with your doctor before you begin taking fish oil supplements. These supplements can interfere with other medications.

Flaxseed

Flaxseed contains another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Like EPA and DHA, ALA may help reduce inflammation and ease symptoms of joint stiffness.

Ground flaxseed has some ALA, but flaxseed oil has more. Flaxseed oil is available in capsules or in a bottle. The average daily recommendation is 500 mg. That amount is often in a flaxseed oil capsule or an ounce of ground flaxseed.

Flaxseeds are ground or crushed to release the healthy fats. Your body can’t break down and process whole flaxseeds, so you won’t receive any of the healthy fats.

Glucosamine sulfate

This chemical occurs naturally in the fluid around your joints. It plays a role in creating cartilage. If you have a glucosamine sulfate deficiency, your body may not be able to produce or protect cartilage.

Some research supports the use of this supplement for relieving joint pain and stiffness. This treatment may be most useful for people with knee osteoarthritis and swelling. The recommended dosage for arthritis pain ranges from 300 to 2000 mg per day.

Before use, talk with your doctor about possible drug interactions.

Learn more: Natural relief from arthritis pain »

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See your doctor

When to see your doctor

If joint stiffness and pain come on suddenly, talk with your doctor. Likewise, if the stiffness and pain don’t resolve after a period of five to seven days, you should seek medical attention.

You should also seek attention from your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • severe pain
  • rapid swelling
  • joint deformity
  • inability to move the joint
  • intense redness and hot to the touch

Though joint stiffness isn’t uncommon, especially as you age, it can be the first sign of another condition. A physical exam is an easy way to determine what might be causing the issue.

If a physical exam isn’t conclusive, your doctor may suggest some treatments to help ease the stiffness while you wait to see if it disappears. If it doesn’t disappear, you may need tests to get a diagnosis.

Once your doctor determines the cause, they can help determine the best treatment plan for you. This may help ease your symptoms and reduce the risk of recurrence.

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