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What does joint stiffness mean?

With age, stiff joints become a reality for many people. Stiffness is the feeling that the motion of a joint is limited or difficult; yet not caused by weakness or reluctance to move due to pain. Some people with stiffness are capable of moving the joint through its full range of motion, but this movement can require force.

Joint stiffness may be mild and only impact your mobility for a brief period of time each morning or after sitting for extended periods of time. Stiffness can also be more severe and impact your mobility. In some cases, the inflammation that accompanies joint stiffness 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. Lifestyle factors, including diet and weight, can also impact joint mobility.

Possible causes of stiff joints:

Arthritis While there are many different types of arthritis, by far the most common in Osteoarthritis. It is the most common chronic joint condition and affects 27 million people in the U.S. It occurs when cartilage—which normally protects the joints—breaks down, causing the bones to rub against each other to trigger pain and swelling. Although Osteoarthritis mostly affects older people, it can appear in all ages. Your risk is especially high if you are obese or have overused a joint (such as by playing a sport for many years). The knees, hips, lower back and neck, fingers, base of the thumb, and big toe are most often affected.

Trauma When joints and other body parts sustain an injury the body attempts to repair itself with an inflammatory response. This is what causes swelling. When a joint remains swollen it can become stiff from excessive fluid and scar tissue the body produces in order to protect itself from further movement. This stiffness can become permanent if it is not treated properly.

Age-related Stiffness As your joints get older, the spongy cushion of cartilage begins to dry out and stiffen. The joint lining also produces less synovial fluid, which lubricates the joint. Muscles and tendons tend to become less elastic. Weak muscles and stiff tendons also tend to tighten during sleep. Osteoarthritis, (the "wear and tear" kind), and rheumatoid arthritis, (which involves swelling and inflammation), both can trigger morning stiffness.

Inflammation Joint stiffness can be caused by inflammation in the synovium, the lining of the joint. The abnormal synovial lining is the cause of many types of arthritis. The only physical expression of synovial involvement may be joint stiffness, but frequently pain, swelling, redness, and warmth also occur in the affected joint.

Autoimmune Disease An autoimmune disease is when your body attacks itself, including your organs and tissues. Your joints can cause stiffness, pain, and swelling. An autoimmune disease may be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms mimic many other conditions. It may take several months for a diagnosis while tests rule out other conditions. 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 are effective at reducing and controlling symptoms.

Here are some ways to alleviate joint stiffness:

Ice therapy (Cryotherapy) Cold temperatures reduce blood flow, and therefore reduce tissue swelling. The first time you experience pain, apply an ice pack on the affected area every hour for the majority of the day for a duration of 15 minutes. The next day, apply the ice only four or five times, still for 15 minutes. This process is vital for joint pain relief. Remember, to avoid ice burns, do not place the ice directly on the skin, and instead wrap it in a towel or washcloth.

Hydrotherapy Warm water will ease pressure on joints and muscles, so a nice warmth bath can do wonders for alleviating joint pain in your knees and hips. Immerse the affected area in the water and massage it in order to stimulate blood flow.

Massage This is an excellent way to relieve joint pain in your knees and hips. Either have it done professionally, or do it at home. If you are doing it on your own, try massaging the affected area with a topical menthol rub to help ease the pain. In addition, remember when massaging your body, the direction of your strokes should always be toward the heart.

Medications Certain medicines, such as ibuprofen, are great for joint pain relief. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will aid in relieving joint swelling and stiffness, and prescribed muscle relaxants can help in reducing muscle spasms.

Natural mixtures Natural herbal mixtures, such as herbal teas, are an excellent way to alleviate as well as prevent knee, hip, and other joint pains.

Exercise Choose and exercise that allows you to move within the limits of your pain and does not cause further pain to the joints (such as your knees). That said, sometimes joint pain can be relived by minor exercise and stretching. However — and this is key — exercise can increase the strength and flexibility of your joints, thus preventing potential joint pain.

Physical therapy A physical therapist specializes in human movement and can help you greatly with relieving your joint pain.

Immobilize the area If the pain is too great, attempt to immobilize the area with a splint or brace. This should not be done in all cases, but only if the pain of movement is too great to bear.

Rest One of the best ways of alleviating joint pain is to get plenty of rest and relaxation. This will restore energy, as well as allow the body to repair itself naturally. Furthermore, resting in between periods of exercise will allow your body to cope with the demands being made on it, thus preventing potential joint pain.

Remember, if you are suffering from joint pain, it is absolutely vital that you schedule an appointment as soon as possible in order to properly assess and alleviate your joint pain. Please contact our office for a consultation.

For more information or to request an appointment, please contact Dr. Patrick McDaid, M.D. at

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