Joint Stiffness

By: Ehren Allen, DPT, COMT

Joint Stiffness is a symptom of inflammation. It can mild a simple as making you slow to get up in the morning, to limiting daily life. Whether it you have stiff ankles, knees, shoulders or hands, there are ways to improve movement in a stiff joint on your own. 

Woman getting out of bed in the morning with joint stiffness in the her lower back with painJoint Stiffness in the Morning

What Causes Joint Stiffness?

There are several theories and reasons for stiff joints in the body. The biggest reason for joint stiffness is inflammation. Inflammation involves pain and swelling. 

The joint's response to pain and swelling is neurophysiological. The Pain causes inhibition of muscle activity around the inflamed joint. This is a protective response in the joint to allow healing. The lack of muscle activity limits movement of the joint.

When joint mobility is limited, the nerve receptors that detect movement become less active and pain receptors become more active. 

Swelling in the joint also causes activation of pain receptors in the joint. This contributes to limiting movement to avoid pain. When swelling takes up enough volume inside the joint, the movement receptors are activated and tell the brain that the joint is at the end position of it's Range of Motion, even if it is not. 

Difference Between Joint Swelling and Tissue Swelling

Swelling inside a joint is called Joint Effusion. Most joints in the body are synovial joints. That means that the joint is encapsulated and has synovial fluid inside to lubricate the joint. Effusion occurs inside a joint when there is an inflammatory process or injury in the joint. 

Swelling in other tissues is called Edema. Edema is the swelling fluid that builds up in the spaces between cells in other tissues in the body such as muscle and fat. To learn more about how to decrease the swelling, read this article on swollen knees.

Why Are Joints Stiff in the Morning?

Image of a man grabbing his neck in the morning with stiffness as he gets out of bedJoints are often more stiff in the morning because they have not moved for 6 to 8 hours. If there is inflammation in the joint, the limited movement while sleeping can cause a slower response of the muscle when the joint movement receptors begin to be activated when getting up in the morning. 

As the joint slowly begins to move, the movement nerve receptors become activated and the pain receptors slow down their response. With gentle movement first thing in the morning, the joint stiffness often goes away fairly quickly in most people. 

Swollen joints are often worse in the morning. This is do the the lack of movement and position with sleeping. The swelling can pool and cause stiffness in the morning. Swelling usually begins to improve with gentle movement as well. The movement helps to "pump" the fluid away from the area.  The amount of swelling within a joint, also depends on the type of joint.  The larger joints in your body which also bear weight tend to swell more than the joints of your fingers. 

How Do You Treat Joint Stiffness At Home?

The quick answer is to move the stiff joint. Motion is Lotion! Moving a stiff joint stimulates movement receptors and slows the pain receptors. This cause a neurological response that helps to increase mobility and decrease pain. 

Start with gentle smooth movements of the stiff joint. Then slowly increase the movement as tolerated. There may be mild discomfort form the stiffness but do no push through sharp or pinching pain. 

Click to learn the 4 Top Arthritis Hand Exercises.

Should You Stretch a Stiff Joint?

The quick answer is typically no. Stretching is helpful for lengthening tight muscles and tendons. But,  joint tissue responds differently. Muscles and tendons require a sustained hold to separate and lengthen fibers. You should not bounce or oscillate while stretching. 

Joint stiffness typically responds better to gentle repetitive movement. The amplitude or intensity of the movement can be increased as tolerated. 

Conditions That Cause Joint Stiffness

Image of 3 knees with anatomy showing healthy knee, osreoarthritis in a knee, and rheumatoid arthritis in a knee.

Foods that Help Joint Stiffness

Since joint stiffness is closely tied to inflammation, eating foods that are anti-inflammatory may help with stiff joints. Foods that tend to be anti-inflammatory include:

  • Leafy Greens
  • Fatty fish  (Salmon, Mackerel, or Tuna)
  • Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries
  • Walnuts or Almonds
  • Olive Oil
  • Turmeric

Foods to limit with joint stiffness include:

  • Refined Sugar
  • Red Meat
  • Processed foods and meats
  • Artificial sweeteners

Learn more from JOI Rehab about low back painLearn more about low back pain here

If you have joint stiffness that is not improving with home treatment, the Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute can help. To see a JOI Orthopedic Specialist, call (904)JOI-2000, schedule online, or click the link below.  To see a JOI Rehab Physical or Occupational Therapist in 1 of our 12, call (904)858-7045

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