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Stiff Joints and How to Treat

Stiff Joints and How to Treat

As people age, they often begin to experience stiffness in their joints. The years of using their joints, bones, and muscles finally catch with them, causing stiffness and discomfort. Most experience stiffness in the morning right after waking up. Joint stiffness can be caused by a number of factors. Read on to discover what causes stiff joints and what you can do to treat them.

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.

Many people who experience joint stiffness tend to feel it after sitting for prolonged periods or after first waking up. Some people experience a mild discomfort that goes away after moving again. Others find that the stiffness lasts longer and is more uncomfortable.

Joint stiffness is the sensation of difficulty moving a joint or the apparent loss of range of motion of a joint. Joint stiffness often accompanies joint pain and/or swelling. Depending on the cause of joint stiffness, joint redness, tenderness, warmth, tingling, or numbness of an affected area of the body may be present. Joint stiffness can be caused by injury or disease of the joint and is a common finding in the arthritis conditions.

Joint damage, including stiffness, can also occur following injury to the joint. Sometimes injuries or inflammation of the adjacent areas, such as bursae, can cause pain that may limit the movement of a joint and be perceived as joint stiffness. Joint pain is also referred to as arthralgia.

What Are Stiff Joints?

Stiff joints are a symptom characterized by reduced mobility or impeded mobility of a joint. You may have difficulty moving the joint or you may be completely unable to move the joint. Joint stiffness may occur in one joint or be present in multiple joints.

There are many causes of stiff joints. Sudden joint stiffness may be due to an injury, while joint stiffness that develops and worsens over time may be due to an underlying disorder or disease. The primary cause of joint stiffness is arthritis, which is inflammation of the joints due to a variety of causes.

Stiff joints caused by injury often have a sudden onset. In other cases, stiff joints resulting from wear-and-tear damage or an underlying medical condition develop slowly and persist or worsen over time.

The duration and course of joint stiffness vary widely, depending on the cause. You may experience stiffness in the affected joint continuously, after specific activities, or at a certain times of the day. Joint stiffness may be accompanied by other joint symptoms, such as pain, inflammation, soreness and achiness.

What Are The Causes?

Most people will experience joint stiffness at some point. Age is a common cause of joint stiffness due primarily to a lifetime of use. When age is the primary reason for stiff joints, any number of joints may be affected.

Common causes include:


Bursitis develops when tiny, fluid-filled sacs in the joints called bursae become inflamed. The inflammation causes pain as well as stiffness.

Bursitis can happen in nearly any joint, but it is most common in larger joints, such as:

  • shoulders
  • hips
  • knees
  • ankles
  • elbow

It is also common in the big toe.

Bursitis usually heals by itself with rest. A person should typically:

  • reduce activities that move the joint
  • rest the joint for long periods

Resting the joint allows the bursae to recover, causing the pain and stiffness to go away.


Osteoarthritis is a degenerative type of arthritis that affects nearly 27 million people in the United States. This type of arthritis is due to wear and tear and is, therefore, more frequently seen in people over the age of 65.

Osteoarthritis often affects:

  • fingers
  • hips
  • knees
  • back
  • neck

As it progresses it can cause:

  • swelling and pain
  • cracking noises with movement

Treatments usually center around relieving pain and reducing swelling in the joints. People whose osteoarthritis is particularly painful and debilitating may require surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another common arthritis that affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S. RA typically appears in younger adults between the ages of 30 and 60.

RA is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack otherwise healthy joints. People with RA will experience pain and swelling as the body attacks the joints.

There is no cure for RA. Treatments focus on slowing the progression of the disease.


Lupus is another autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue, such as muscles and joints. When lupus attacks the joints, symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • stiffness
  • pain

Lupus is often difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms are similar to other medical conditions. There is no cure and symptoms will get worse over time.

Treatment focuses on treating the symptoms. Available treatments tend to be effective in helping people find symptom relief.


Gout is a sudden onset arthritis that tends to affect males more often than females. Gout is a condition that develops quickly, with symptoms sometimes appearing overnight, often in the big toe.

Symptoms include:

  • severe pain
  • severe tenderness
  • stiff joints
  • swelling and increased warmth of the joint

Gout can develop in any joint. Gout will typically appear for a short period and go away. People with gout often get symptoms on and off throughout their life.

Treatment focuses on reducing the severity of the symptoms and lowering levels of uric acid in the blood.

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.

What Other Symptoms Might Occur With Stiff Joints?

Stiff joints may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the joints may also involve other body systems

Joint symptoms that may occur along with stiff joints

Stiff joints may accompany other symptoms affecting the joints including:

  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Burning feeling
  • Itching feeling
  • Numbness
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Redness, warmth or swelling (edema) of the joints
  • Tingling or other unusual sensations

Other symptoms that may occur along with stiff joints

Stiff joints may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Enlarged liver and glands, such as the spleen and lymph nodes
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle twitching, spasms or seizures
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Skin rash
  • Sore throat

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bone protruding from skin
  • Extensive bleeding
  • Fever not associated with flu symptoms
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

How to Relieve Joint Stiffness

Before you begin researching treatment options, you should see a doctor. The best way to find a suitable treatment is to determine what is causing the problem. Your doctor can diagnose the issue and recommend an appropriate way to ease stiffness and prevent other symptoms you may be experiencing. Here are a few remedies that your doctor may suggest to treat your discomfort:

  • Over-the-counter medication can relieve mild symptoms of joint pain. NSAIDs like aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen are often used to treat arthritis.
  • Cold or hot compresses can be helpful. Cold will reduce swelling and heat will relax the muscles and joints.
  • Steroids can aid in reducing swelling and inflammation that causes stiffness.
  • Physical therapy and exercise help in improving mobility and maintaining a healthy weight, which can, in turn, reduce joint stiffness.
  • Glucosamine sulfate is a chemical that occurs naturally in the fluid surrounding the joints. Taking glucosamine sulfate as a supplement can relieve pain and stiffness.
  • Taking fish oil supplements can also reduce joint stiffness.

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 one2012 studyTrusted Source 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 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.

Prevent Joint Stiffness

As we age, the connective tissue and cartilage that provide cushioning between the joints wear down and become thinner, leading to conditions such as osteoarthritis that can cause pain and inflammation. Genetics and age are primary factors in joint deterioration, but there are steps you can take to extend the life of your joints and protect knee or hip replacements.

Manage your weight

Excess body weight strains joints—particularly knees. Obesity is a significant risk factor for developing arthritis in your leg joints and having major complications with surgery. Every pound of excess weight exerts roughly four pounds of extra pressure on your knees. If you’re 10 pounds overweight—that’s 40 pounds of extra pressure on your knees with every step you take.

Watching your weight also includes avoiding carrying heavy loads, such as grocery bags, and protecting your smaller joints. For example, lift with the muscles in your hands and arms rather than just using your fingers. When standing, use your thigh muscles rather than your hands to push off from a chair.

Keep moving

Joints are meant to be used, but if we don’t warm up before exercising and stretch often to avoid getting stiff, we’ll be creaking like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. For those with arthritis, exercise can be challenging. Instead, choose activities that are easier on your joints. Bike rather than walk, or swim rather than use the elliptical.

Choose activities that also safeguard aging tendons and ligaments. Sports like basketball or racquetball, where you pivot, twist, or stop and turn suddenly, can cause a torn meniscus or ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the knee. Repetitive movements like weeding or swinging golf clubs can result in tendonitis.

Remember to pace yourself

When you start a new activity, build up gradually to reduce the risk of injury. If you work out too hard too fast, you risk inflaming or stressing joints before the muscles are strong enough to support them. Listen to your body to know when enough is enough. There is no benefit from overuse.

How much is too much? If you experience pain during an activity, stop. If pain or discomfort hasn’t gone away within 30 minutes after exercising, cut back. And if you have arthritis, be aware the pain will often decrease with movement. It’s all about finding the fine line between too little and too much.

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