How To Move Without Pain

Why are my Joints so Stiff?

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Joint stiffness occurs for many reasons as we age.  Years of activity can take their toll on joints, muscles, and connective tissues.  Most people feel joint stiffness in the morning, after sitting watching a movie. or being in the car for a long car ride.

Joint stiffness occurs most often from being in the same position for too long which causes the joint to reduce its synovial fluid production, allowing tissues to tighten and movement to feel difficult. 

As you age, the cartilage (spongy tissue between the joints and around the ends of the bones) can dry out and harden. The synovial fluid in your joints helps the cartilage stay pliable and stretchy, and allows for easy movement in the joint.

If there is less synovial fluid within the joint it may not move as freely, causing a tight, stiff feeling joint. The easiest fix – move your joints; your whole body more.

Learn why your joints hurt so you know what to do about it

Joint stiffness is often mild and only impacts 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 more significantly.

The cartilage on the ends of the joint can wear and break down over a lifetime leading to osteoarthritis (OA). When the cartilage is gone, the bones may contact one another, and sometimes, tiny pieces break off. The result is a stiff, swollen, painful joint. Painful joints can make you less active, leading to further joint stiffness and muscle weakness.

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

Reducing joint swelling, wrapping the joint, and maintaining strength can help reduce joint pain. Using a heating pad when the joint is stiff or an ice pack, when it is painful, is also beneficial. Finding activities that you can complete without increasing your joint pain is important for maintaining joint mobility and strength. Even if you don’t have Fibromyalgia, these exercise ideas are low impact and keep you moving.

Take the free Joint Health Assessment to learn the potential impact of your current activity limitations

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), differs from OA.  It is an autoimmune disorder when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues.  Unlike the wear-and-tear damage of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis affects the lining of your joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.  The symptoms typically occur between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. And more often affects women over men. 

Early RA symptoms usually affect smaller joints, such as fingers and toes. As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders.

Signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints
  • Joint stiffness is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity
  • Fatigue, fever, and loss of appetite

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can vary in severity and may even flare up (periods of increased disease activity)  and then go away when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and appear to shift out of place.

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OA and RA are the most well-known types of arthritis, but other types also affect your immune system and result in stiff joints:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis: An autoimmune condition that mistakenly attacks healthy joints in the spine, but it can make your hips, hands, or feet feel stiff too.  The spine feels stiff and painful and becomes progressively worse over time.  Generally, ankylosing spondylitis begins in your low back and pelvis and will work its way up as the disease progresses. Although there is no cure, maintaining mobility, physical therapy, and medication as needed are all beneficial in reducing the immobility caused by this disease.
  • Gout: While common, it’s more complex than OA. The first sign of this build-up of uric acid in your body is the severe, sudden joint pain and swelling causing redness and tenderness of the joint. Most commonly affected is a searing pain in your big toe.
  • Infectious arthritis: It often starts with an infection somewhere else in your body that travels to one big joint, like your hip. Infants and older adults are most likely to develop septic arthritis.  The joint could be swollen, red and warm, and you may develop a fever.
  • Psoriatic Arthritis: Psoriatic arthritis typically develops after the onset of psoriasis but not always.  Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling are the main signs and symptoms of psoriatic arthritis. Any joint is susceptible to the pain of psoriatic arthritis, including joints of the fingers, spine, knees, ankle, and toes. 

Weather plays a role in joint mobility and comfort – ask any grandparent. Although scientists have a difficult time proving it, barometric pressure (the pressure of the air) can affect joints; also humidity, precipitation, and temperature play a role. Changes in barometric pressure may make your tendons, ligaments, muscles, and any scar tissue expands and contract, which can create pain in joints affected by arthritis. Low temperatures can also make the fluid inside joints thicker, so they feel stiffer causing difficulty with movement.

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Fibromyalgia can feel similar to osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and bursitis, but rather than hurting in a specific spot; fibromyalgia causes pain and stiffness throughout the body. Symptoms often begin after a physical trauma, surgery, infection, or significant psychological stress.

In other cases, symptoms gradually accumulate over time with no single triggering event.  Women are often more affected than men. Symptoms most often include widespread pain, fatigue, and ‘fibro fog’ causing decreased ability to focus and concentrate. 

Joint injury can cause swelling, inflammation, pain, and decreased mobility. The most common joint injuries are due to overuse of a joint over time.  Bursitis involves the bursae, the fluid-filled sacs that sit between the tendons and the underlying bone.  The lubrication and buffer they add help to reduce friction during movement of the joint and reduce the rubbing of the tendon on the bones during movement or muscle contraction.  Inflamed bursae cause pain and discomfort in the affected joint.

Tendinitis is inflammation that affects the tendons that attach your muscles to your bones and can cause pain in that area.  Tendonopathy, which is the degeneration of collagen that forms the tendon, can be a ‘toothache’ like pain radiating from the joint to several inches away from the inflamed area.  Tendonopathy pain occurs most commonly around the knee, hip, ankle or shoulder, but can also occur at the thumb and elbows. 

Take the free Joint Health Assessment to learn the potential impact of your current activity limitations​

After a joint injury, swelling is normal and necessary to the tissue healing process in the initial phase, yet swelling does need to be monitored and managed to make sure it does not have a negative effect on the surrounding tissues. Giving the tissues the best chance to heal requires rest and monitoring the injury. Following these tips will help reduce swelling and tissue pressure after an injury. 

Treatments for joint stiffness can include general movements, medication, physical therapy, or even surgery if joint tissues need repair. The goal is to reduce joint stiffness and ease any painful inflammation before it leads to chronic stiffness and weakness.  Hopefully, this will decrease immobility, risk of falls, and further injury.  

What can you do?

Move your joints through the range that is comfortable, often this is leg kicks, marching, heel/toe raises, reaching overhead as far as you can, bend forward and backward… the ideas could go on. The point is to move your joints through the range they can move as far as you can at least 10 times to help the joint loosen, muscle contract, and reduce stiffness. 

Consider what you are eating. The foods we eat can also play a big role in inflammation. Eating a diet focused on food that will help ease the inflammation in your body, such as fruits and vegetables that are high in natural antioxidants can help too.  

Check your weight. If you’re 10 pounds overweight, you’re adding 30 to 60 pounds of additional pressure on your legs with every step! Dropping #10 can play a huge role in your joint health! 

Walking is one of the most underrated and accessible exercise activities we can do. It can be done indoors, outdoors, or on a treadmill. 

Walking benefits:

📌 Muscle strengthening

📌 More energy

📌 Better lung health

📌 Improved circulation

📌 Improved digestion

📌 Greater core strength

📌 Fewer tension headaches

📌 Better balance

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that energize your mood, relieve stress, boost your self-esteem, and trigger an overall sense of well-being.

Understand when you need to rest. If pain is increasing as you move, then try taking a 20-minute rest, or elevate if swollen, and use ice. If you feel progressive stiffness try heat to ease the stiffness

Although all of this may sound scary, it doesn’t have to result in pain or limited mobility.  OA, for example, is a normal process that our joints go through as we age, but only about 10% of people will have pain with it.  Other arthritic conditions are often alleviated with proper management and activity.  If you are experiencing any symptoms of arthritis, talk to your health care provider to see what you can do to preserve your lifestyle and continue enjoying all the activities you want!

*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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