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Causes of Stiff Joints and Ways to Manage Them

Sometimes marked by a steady or complete loss of mobility in the affected area, stiff joints are not the most tolerable conditions. If left untreated, they can become debilitating, and over time, can significantly affect the quality of life.

Understanding Stiff Joints

Understanding Stiff Joints

While stiff joints are a common condition among older people, it is not always age-related. It can be caused or worsened by several factors, including injury, osteoarthritis, obesity, excessive joint-training exercises, and minimal or lack of physical activities.

How Joint Stiffness Occurs In Older People

In older people, joint stiffness often occurs when the cartilage’s cushions start to dry out and stiffen. The production of the synovial fluid in the joint lining (needed for lubrication) also declines. At sleep, the weakened and stiff tendons tighten, leading to joint stiffness in the morning or after long rests or inactivity.

Stiff or painful joint sessions are not always lengthy. Most episodes last about 15 – 20 minutes and the joints return to normal as you move and warm them up. However, in severe cases like rheumatoid arthritis, stiffness, and pain may last up to an hour or two. 

Thankfully, there are specific steps you can take to help you manage or even reverse the condition (often a symptom of an underlying condition), its severity, and frequency, and we’ll discuss them in this article. We’ll also share some of the symptoms of stiff joints, their causes, treatments, lifestyle changes, and even some common questions about stiff joints. But first, what are stiff joints?

Defining Stiff Joints

Stiff joints can be described as impeded or reduced mobility of affected joints. People with this condition may experience some difficulty moving the joint or, in severe cases, are entirely unable to move the joint. And while it may sometimes occur in one joint, it can affect more than one. Alongside a reduced range of movement or total immobility, sufferers may also experience pain in the area (arthralgia), swelling, redness, tenderness, and warmth. 

In some cases, areas around the affected joints may become inflamed (bursitis), spreading pain on surrounding areas.

Arthritis and age-related wear and tear are high on the list of the primary causes of stiff joints and worsen over time. On the other hand, injury-related stiffness or non-chronic stiffness can occur suddenly and often goes away quickly with treatments. 

Factors That Lead To Stiff Joints

There are several possible causes of stiff joints, and though these causes can sometimes be age-related, they can also be due to other factors. They are discussed briefly in this section. 

1. Age

As we age, normal wear and tear can occur from frequent use of body parts like the joints, resulting in joint stiffening. The surrounding muscles and cartilages also grow weak, worsening the condition altogether. 

2. Musculoskeletal injury

Joints can become inflamed from a severe injury and cause pain and stiffness. The two common types of injury-related joint pains are bursitis (the inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that lessen the shock between the joints and other parts) and tendinitis (the inflammation of the tendons that connect the muscles to the bones).

3. Osteoarthritis

A degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis can occur because of general wear and tear suffered by the weight-bearing joints such as the hips and the knee joints. As the disease progresses, the cartilage wears away at the contact points of the bones that make up the joint. As these bones rub against each other frequently from movement, sufferers experience tremendous pain and inflammation, and these are symptoms of stiff joints.

4. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. Often, the same joints on either side of the body are affected.

5. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia

While not as severe as rheumatoid arthritis, they share some symptoms. Fibromyalgia is characterized by muscle and joint pain. It can affect the mood, sleep pattern, increase fatigue, and cognitive issues and may be triggered by extreme stress, illness, or surgery.

Other possible causes of stiff joints include infectious arthritis, gout (known to cause stiff and painful joints), gonorrheal arthritis caused by untreated gonorrhea, and Lyme arthritis from late treated or untreated Lyme disease. 

Symptoms of Joint Stiffness

Stiff joints are easy to detect by their symptoms. The common symptoms of stiff joints are outlined below. 

1. Loss of or/limited mobility

A common symptom of joint stiffness, loss of mobility is one of the tell-tale signs of the condition. Sufferers with the symptom can find “simple” activities such as moving the joints in the affected area challenging. And this is often accompanied by pain of varying severity. 

2. Arthralgia

Also known as joint pain, arthralgia is one of the main symptoms of joint stiffness. Again, the severity of the discomfort may vary and ranges from slight tingling/numbing sensation to intensely painful. 

3. Inflammation and swelling

Affected joints can become swollen, inflamed, warm, tender, and red. Sufferers may also feel an increase in pressure inside the affected joints, worsening the condition. 

Effective Treatments For Stiff Joints

To effectively treat stiff joints, it must first be properly diagnosed. Ensure you see a doctor for a proper diagnosis before starting a treatment regimen. So, how is the condition diagnosed? 
The condition is usually diagnosed with clinical examination and followed by blood tests (to pinpoint the exact cause). And finally, imaging, to visualize the joint’s internal structure, assess the extent of the problem, and determine the right treatment, especially if surgery may be required.

1. Heat Therapy

Heat therapy may be recommended by a doctor, depending on the patient’s specific symptoms. In most cases, dry heat is usually recommended to help relax the area.

2. Cold Compress

Cold compresses can effectively reduce swelling and inflammation. In this case, a pack of ice or a cold water-immersed towel may be used.

3. Steroids

Your health professional may recommend steroids like prednisolone and prednisone if the stiffness and pain are a result of an autoimmune condition. Aside from reducing inflammation, they contain immunomodulatory properties[1] that are effective at reducing other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. 

4. Turmeric

A popular spice in cuisines around the world, turmeric offers so many proven health benefits[2]. It is an effective antioxidant and also contains anti-inflammatory properties[3] needed for reducing inflammation, joint pain, and stiffness. 

5. NSAIDs

Drugs in this category include ibuprofen and naproxen. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) lessen the inflammation and pain common with stiff joints.

6. Topical Inflammation Creams

As the name suggests, topical creams are applied to the skin and are known for their rapid effectiveness for pain. The creams often contain drugs like methyl salicylate and diclofenac diethylamine. And these drugs are also effective at providing quick relief from swelling and inflammation that could arise from the condition. 

7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids can be effective at reducing inflammation and swelling associated with stiff joints. It is contained in oily fish such as herring, trout, and salmon, and plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, avocado, and canola oil. 

8. Vitamin D

Often lacking in arthritic patients, Vitamin D is needed for overall well being. Low levels of vitamin D can affect calcium absorption[4], consequently affecting bone health. Luckily, it can be upped easily by soaking in the sun or taking vitamin D tablets. 

9. Glucosamine Sulfate

This chemical is naturally present in fluids around the joints. As a supplement, it can help reduce the pain and inflammation[5] associated with joint stiffness from conditions like osteoarthritis. 

Other effective treatments for stiff joints include 1. bromelain[6], an enzyme present in pineapples, and known for its pain and inflammation-reducing properties, 2. Devil’s Claw contains iridoid glycosides[7] that relieve inflammation and pain in musculoskeletal disorders, and 3. White Willow Bark[8], which contains salicin that is known to be potent for pain relief, including those caused by stiff joints.

Treatments for stiff joints

Common Questions About Stiff Joints

Joints can hurt in the morning because of an injury, wear and tear, or muscle tightness, indicating inflammation or any of the several types of arthritis. 

Vitamin D. It is known for its musculoskeletal and overall health improving qualities. 

If you suffer from stiff joints, you should avoid processed foods like sugar and some of its alternatives, high-fat dairy, red meat, and alcohol. Opt for more natural food items instead. 

Most joint stiffness sessions last a few minutes to an hour or two with varying pain severity. If the joint stiffness and its accompanying pain and swelling last longer than a week, you should see a doctor. 

While joint stiffness can go away after some movements in mild cases, in chronic cases, it can recur after sitting or lying for an extended period.

Conclusion

Stiff joints can affect anyone; young or old. It is not always age-related. And thankfully, it can often be managed with over the counter drugs, simple home remedies, lifestyle changes like weight management and selective exercising (reduce exercises that excessively or regularly strain the joints), and diet. In severe cases, surgery may be recommended. However, that would be decided by your health professional after extensive physical examinations, testing, and imaging.

That said, while stiff joints are hardly ever health emergencies, you should seek immediate medical attention if it worsens or is accompanied by a high fever, tissue damage, or bleeding. Also, request urgent medical attention if your stiff joints become recurrent, persistent, or concerning. 

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