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With age, stiff joints become a reality for many people. Years of use can take a toll on joints, muscles, and bones, but there are steps you can take to find relief.
Why does joint stiffness occur?
Many people experience stiff joints just after waking up. Lying down for several hours to sleep reduces fluid amounts, making moving joints more difficult first thing in the morning.
Joint stiffness may be mild and only impact your mobility for a brief period 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 management, can also impact joint mobility.
Keep reading to learn more about possible causes and treatments.
1. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
The most common cause of joint pain is arthritis. About 15 million people with arthritis report experiencing severe joint pain.
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.
Common symptoms of RA include:
- joint pain
- joint stiffness
- joint swelling
RA has no cure, so its symptoms can’t be entirely eliminated. They can be managed through medication and other treatments. However, little can be done to prevent the disease once it has advanced.
2. Osteoarthritis (OA)
Another common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is sometimes called degenerative arthritis. It affects nearly 32.5 million Americans. It’s most common in people over age 50.
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:
As OA progresses, it can begin to cause symptoms other than stiffness. These include:
- cracking sounds when the joint is in motion
As the condition worsens, you could develop bone spurs. In the advanced stages of OA, the cartilage virtually disappears. Bones rub against other bones in your joint. This can cause extreme pain, stiffness, and disability.
Treatment for OA can help. Lifestyle treatments can be effective, such as exercise to reduce weight and pressure on joints. Additionally, medication may be administered to help relieve immense pain, such as:
- pain relievers
- non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
In severe cases, joint replacement surgery may be necessary.
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. A lupus diagnosis may take several months 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 effectively reduce and control symptoms. Treatments include:
- Benlysta (belimumab): a biologic therapy taken with other medications that help prevent autoreactive B cells (an underlying cause of lupus) from remaining in the body for too long.
- Saphnelo (anifrolumab): a prescription medication that blocks type 1 interferon activity, which plays a central role in how lupus affects the human body.
- Lupkynis (voclosporin): another prescription medication that binds to calcineurin proteins in the body, helping reduce inflammation in the kidneys.
Other potential treatment options include hydroxychloroquine, corticosteroids, and a shift toward healthier lifestyle choices may also be prescribed to combat lupus symptoms.
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:
Other common sites include the following:
- 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, allowing the bursae to recover and stiffness to resolve.
Your healthcare professional may ask you to perform exercises to relieve certain bursitis pain.
Unlike some other possible causes of joint stiffness, gout comes on suddenly. It may appear while you’re asleep, making 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.
6. Bone cancer
This is rarely a cause of joint pain and stiffness, but it is possible. 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. Additionally, immunotherapy (immuno-oncology), a newer treatment option, uses checkpoint inhibitors such as Keytruda (pembrolizumab) to boost the immune response against cancer cells.
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 worsen, 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. NSAIDs are the most commonly used medication for arthritis. Generic names for NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
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 and physical therapy may help increase joint mobility, reducing stiffness.
It’s also a great way to lose or maintain a healthy weight. Carrying around excess pounds can increase your risk for conditions that cause joint pain and stiffness.
If you’re unsure how to begin exercising or have 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. Causes, Relief Tips, When…
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 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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