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What to know about stiff joints

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CausesMedicationsPreventionNatural remediesContacting a doctorSummary
Our joints work hard. Sometimes, health conditions can affect them, along with wear and tear from aging. Preventive measures and treatment options can help improve joint mobility and relieve pain.
Medically reviewed by Stella Bard, MD
Updated on November 27, 2023

Stiff joints are a common part of the aging process. You may feel the stiffness when you first get out of bed or after sitting for a short time. You may also feel stiffness when you bend to pick something up or when you reach for something high up.

There are some medical conditions, like arthritis, bursitis, and lupus, that can cause joint pain and stiffness, but there are many treatment options and pain relievers to help you manage these symptoms.

What causes stiff joints? 

Adult male sitting at a home office desk and stretching his arms above his head with his hands joined to try and avoid stiff joints
Photography by FG Trade/Getty Images

Stiff joints have a variety of potential causes. Aging can lead to stiff and uncomfortable joints, depending on lifestyle factors, genetics, and your body’s unique composition.

Arthritis, or chronic inflammation of the joints, is a common cause of joint stiffness. It affects around 15 million people in the United States. Osteoarthritis can result from aging, overuse, or a high body mass index (BMI), while rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune condition where your body attacks your joints.

Arthritis also has many forms, which may present differently. For example, gout is a form of arthritis that typically affects one joint at a time. Post-traumatic arthritis tends to occur following an injury, and symptoms may include swelling, fluid buildup, and pain. You should heal from this within around 6 months of injury. However, in some cases, symptoms can persist and become chronic.  

Joint stiffness is not always arthritis. Total body pain and stiffness is also a symptom of fibromyalgia, a chronic condition affecting about 4 million adults in the United States. You may be more susceptible to fibromyalgia if you have rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, an autoimmune condition in which your body attacks its own tissues. This can affect any part of the body.

Other causes of stiff joints may include:

  • inactivity
  • bone cancer
  • bursitis

Can stiffness become worse at different times of the day?

The most common time to have stiff joints is after waking up from a long sleep. That’s because the amount of fluid around your joints reduces during sleep, making mobility more difficult. 

In addition, when you lie in one position for an extended period, it can make the joints become more stiff in that area.

You may also notice more pain following your usual daily routine, as you may have spent a prolonged period using your joints.

Medications to help relieve stiff joint pain 

There are both prescription and nonprescription medications that can help reduce joint inflammation and pain. Treatment will typically differ based on the reason for your joint stiffness but may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and prescription medications.

NSAIDs, like aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil), are the most common over-the-counter medications used to treat these symptoms. Stronger doses of some of these medications may also be available via prescription from a doctor.

Prescription medications include corticosteroids, like prednisone (Prelone) and dexamethasone (Decadron), which are types of steroids, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), like methotrexate (Trexall) and sulfasalazine (Azulfidine).

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

Are there any preventive measures for stiff joints?

One of the key ways to prevent stiff joints is to move. 

A 2022 literature review shows that exercise improves outcomes for people with arthritis. This is because it helps people maintain a healthy BMI, which reduces excess pressure on the joints and helps flush nutrient-rich fluid into the joint cartilage.

Research from 2018 also shows that fish oil supplements and a Mediterranean diet may reduce inflammation throughout the body, making it more difficult for arthritis and other health conditions to set in. 

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Are there any natural remedies for stiff joints?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, heat is one of the most effective natural remedies for stiff joints. Applying heat to the joints can ​​make the blood vessels bigger, allowing for more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to flow into the area. This improved circulation relaxes stiff muscles and joints, helping them loosen and function more effectively. 

You can apply heat in a number of ways. A hot shower or bath, especially in the morning, can help stiff joints become limber for daily activities. Placing a heating pad directly on the joint is another effective way of improving stiffness.

You should only avoid applying heat to a joint if you have had a recent injury and need to reduce swelling and inflammation. In this case, applying ice directly to the injured area at 15-minute intervals may help reduce swelling and discomfort.

When to contact a doctor

If you notice a sudden increase in joint stiffness and pain, or these symptoms persist for longer than a week, you should consider discussing them with a doctor or healthcare professional. 

Other symptoms that require medical attention include:

  • becoming unable to move the joint
  • noticing that the joint has become misshapen
  • intense redness and heat
  • severe pain

Summary

Joint stiffness is a common symptom that could be the result of many health conditions, including arthritis, injury, and fibromyalgia. 

Though some forms of joint stiffness do not go away completely, there are both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical ways to reduce pain and inflammation, including anti-inflammatories, steroids, diet, and exercise.

If you notice any intense pain or become unable to move the joint, you should consider contacting a doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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