Potential Causes of Stiff Joints and What to do About Them

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Many people experience stiff joints as they age. Others may experience joint stiffness due to medical conditions and lifestyle choices. Sometimes, people can treat stiff joints at home.

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.

In more severe situations, stiff joints may impact a person’s mobility. People may have difficulty putting weight on their joints, or they may have problems standing or walking.

What are the causes?

Most people will experience joint stiffness at some point, but the reasons for the discomfort may vary based on a variety of factors. Some causes are more severe than others.

Causes of stiff joints include:

Sleeping posture

Many times the way people sleep at night can contribute to joint stiffness.

When a person does not sleep in a way that aligns the spine and keeps their neck in a neutral position, they may wake up feeling stiff or achy.

People who sleep on their sides may want to avoid lying on a particular side if it is already feeling stiff. Using a variety of pillows around the body can help keep it in the right sleep position for a good night’s rest and less joint stiffness.

Time of day

In addition to sleeping posture, research shows that joint stiffness may be more severe in the morning when a person first wakes up due to a correlation between inflammation and a person’s circadian clock. This is more likely in cases of joint stiffness resulting from rheumatoid arthritis.

In addition, there is some evidence that poor sleep may make joint discomfort worse at night. This, in turn, contributes to poor sleep. For this reason, people who have conditions like arthritis may struggle to get enough rest at night.


Older adults may have stiffer joints simply because of a lifetime of use. Over time, a person’s range of joint motion becomes more restricted. A person may also become less flexible.

The cartilage, which is the cushion that protects the connection between a person’s bones, also begins to wear down. This causes inflammation and can lead to arthritis.


When a person is overweight, their weight is higher than what doctors consider healthy for their height. The most common way to measure this is with the Body Mass Index (BMI). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define BMI higher than 25 as overweight, higher than 30 as obese, and higher than 40 as severely obese.

When the body carries additional weight, this weight places extra pressure on the joints. In addition, fat cells can release proteins into the body that can cause inflammation. Both of these factors together may lead to arthritis, which can cause joint stiffness.

In addition, research shows that being overweight may cause all kinds of metabolic problems in the body, which may have a negative effect on bone health.


Eating animal and dairy products may play a role in triggering conditions that can cause joint stiffness such as gout or arthritis.

When people eat more of these foods and fewer plant-based foods, they may be more susceptible to joint stiffness.

Research shows that choosing some variation of a Mediterranean or vegan diet may help reduce stiffness. Specifically, eating more fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, probiotics, herbs, and spices may be beneficial.


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

Bursitis usually heals by itself with rest. A person should typically reduce activities that move the joint and 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 over 32.5 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, as well as 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 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 can 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.


Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes a person pain throughout the body. This condition also includes joint stiffness as one of its symptoms. Because people who have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may be more prone to this condition, these people may be at more particular risk for joint stiffness.

Bone cancer

While there are different types of bone cancer, the most common kind is osteosarcoma. While cancer doesn’t cause joint stiffness often, it may do so occasionally. When a person gets stiff joints due to bone cancer, they usually get in the arms and the legs.


There are many over-the-counter (OTC) and home remedies to help alleviate joint stiffness, pain, and swelling. One type of OTC medication a person can take is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include medications like ibuprofen (Advil), as well as other pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).

For people who experience severe joint stiffness as a result of conditions like arthritis, recent research still shows NSAIDs may be more effective than opioids like morphine.

It is essential that people speak to their doctor if the cause of the joint pain is unknown, comes on suddenly, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

What are the home remedies?

People can also choose to try home remedies to reduce joint stiffness along with any other treatments that a doctor has recommended or prescribed.

Home remedies can include:

  • using hot and cold compresses
  • losing excess weight
  • Exercising
  • eating a balanced diet
  • taking supplements, such as fish oil

When to see a doctor

People do not need to see their doctor if joint stiffness typically occurs first thing in the morning or after sitting for extended periods. However, they should consult a doctor if stiffness comes on suddenly or does not go away after a few days.

People should also speak to their doctor if they have:

  • rapid swelling
  • severe pain
  • deformity of the joints
  • joint redness that is hot to touch
  • loss of mobility in the joint

Stiff joints can be a sign of a more significant health problem. People should speak to their doctor about their symptoms if in any doubt.


Many people will experience joint stiffness as they age. Most often this stiffness will wear off after a person gets up and moves around. Other people, however, may experience joint stiffness as a result of an underlying condition.

Anyone who has any doubt about the cause of their joint stiffness should speak to their doctor to help rule out or treat a potential underlying condition. With proper treatment and some home remedies, a person can typically relieve their stiff joints.

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