Stiff Joints: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Stiff jointsAn increasing number of people suffer from stiff joints, which means that they have difficulty moving the joints. There are a number of reasons for joint stiffness but knowing the cause and how to properly address it can help keep you mobile.

With age, stiff joints are expected. After years of use, the joints, muscles, and bones have experienced a considerable amount of pressure. Some people feel joint stiffness when they wake up in the morning or after sitting for a long period of time. This type of stiffness is usually temporary. However, stiffness can be more severe and impact your mobility.


When stiff joints are accompanied by pain, it’s referred to as arthralgia. Some people experience other stiff joint symptoms along with the pain, such as swelling and redness. This can be due to an injury or an underlying health problem. There are also situations whereby areas next to the joints, such as the bursae, become inflamed. This can cause radiating pain in and around the joints and is called bursitis.

There are a number of factors that can lead to joint stiffness, including obesity and arthritis.

What Are the Causes of Stiff Joints?

When we consider what causes joint stiffness, we have to think about age, lifestyle, and potential underlying diseases.

The following list covers the most common stiff joints causes:

  • Age: Stiff joints are a normal part of aging. Over a long period of time, our joints get weaker, and so does the supporting cartilage and muscle around the joints.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Arthritis is the most common cause of joint pain. RA is a form of arthritis that impacts over 1.5 million Americans. It usually strikes individuals between the ages of 30 and 60. It’s a chronic inflammatory condition that is classified as an autoimmune disease. With RA, the immune system attacks the lining of the joints causing inflammation, pain, and stiffness. Over time, it can even cause joint deformity and bone erosion.
  • Osteoarthritis (OA): This form of arthritis is often referred to as degenerative arthritis affecting close to 27 million Americans. It is common in people who are over the age of 65. OA is the result of wear and tear on the joints. When cartilage – which protects the bones in joints – wears away, joint stiffness and other uncomfortable symptoms can set in. The knees, hips, fingers, neck, and back are the most affected areas of the body when it comes to osteoarthritis. In advanced stages, OA can very painful and disabling.
  • Other types of arthritis: There are other types of arthritis, such as ankylosing spondylitis and infectious arthritis or septic arthritis, which can cause stiff joints.
  • Fibromyalgia: This is a condition that causes both joint and muscle pain, as well as fatigue, cognitive deficiencies, and difficulty sleeping. It often occurs following illness, surgery, or extreme stress.
  • Lupus: This is an autoimmune disease that attacks tissues and organs. Since it attacks the joints, it can lead to stiffness, pain, and swelling. Like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus is chronic, which means once diagnosed, you will have it for the rest of your life. With proper treatment, the symptoms can be managed.
  • Bursitis: The tiny fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, ligaments, and muscles in our joints are call bursae. When those sacs get inflamed, it is called bursitis. The condition can lead to pain and stiffness in the affected joint. Bursitis is common in larger joints, such as the shoulder, hip, knee, and elbow. It is often temporary.
  • Gout: Joint stiffness due to gout comes on quickly. It can appear while sleeping and make it difficult to move when you wake up in the morning. There is usually sudden pain and tenderness in the joints. The big toe is often the first joint to experience symptoms. Gout has actually been categorized as a form of arthritis. It tends to affect men more than women.
  • Bone cancer: While this is rare, when it happens, it can cause joint pain and stiffness. Swelling and sensitivity near the bone are also symptoms of bone cancer. Not everyone with bone cancer will experience symptoms, which means the condition is sometimes advanced before it is discovered.
  • Injury: Sometimes an injury can cause a joint to become inflamed. Bursitis is a form of injury-related joint pain but so is tendinitis. Tendinitis is inflammation from overuse or infection. Tendinitis is common in baseball pitchers.

Symptoms That May Accompany Stiff Joints

While the severity will vary, there are a few joint stiffness symptoms that seem to be shared by the various causes. Pain is one of the main symptoms of joint stiffness. It is medically referred to as arthralgia.

The pain may be an intense throbbing sensation or a mild tingling or numbing feeling. The other common symptom is inflammation and swelling. The joint can be inflamed, swollen, red, warm, as well as tender. Pressure inside the joint may also increase thus aggravating the condition even further.

How Is a Stiff Joint Diagnosed?

If your joints are stiff, obviously you’re going to notice, but how do you diagnose stiff joints? Well, there are a number of ways for a doctor to determine if there is something physically wrong.

  • Clinical exam: An exam of the affected joint can sometimes reveal symptoms such as pain, swelling, redness, tenderness, stiffness, and an affected range of motion. The outcome of a clinical exam will help determine whether other tests should be carried out.
  • Blood tests: This is a common tool when assessing joint stiffness. The blood tests usually look at erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ERS) and C-reactive protein (CRP). These can help determine whether or not there is an underlying inflammatory condition. If RA is suspected, an anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) test can help confirm the diagnosis.
  • Imaging: X-rays, ultrasonography, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to see the internal structure of the joint and establish the extent of damage if there is any.

Treatment Methods for Stiff Joints

Treatment for stiff joints depends on the cause and severity of symptoms. If you experience stiff joints and it lasts longer than 30 minutes after you wake up or you find that over time your symptoms seem to get worse, you need to see a doctor to help you determine the best way to address the discomfort.
The following are stiff joints treatment that are commonly recommended by doctors:

  • Hot or cold compress: You can apply a cold compress to your stiff joints for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day to reduce inflammation and swelling. This can ease the joint into moving. Using a heating pad or hot water bottle is good for relaxing muscles and increasing circulation.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Some people with joint pain find that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are helpful, especially for different forms of arthritis.
  • Steroids: When there is inflammation and swelling in the joints, steroids may be helpful. Corticosteroids are commonly used to reduce inflammation, which can reduce pain and stiffness. Steroids may not be the best option for those who suffer from advanced arthritis.
  • Exercise: Physical therapy and exercise can be a good way to decrease stiffness and improve joint mobility. Carrying excess weight can put a lot of pressure on the joints so exercise can help people lose weight and alleviate that pressure. Exercise can aggravate certain conditions so you really should consult with a doctor before engaging in a new exercise routine.
  • Splints: Some studies show that 87 percent of stiff finger joints responded well to exercise and splinting. Many different splints can be used to treat hand disease and injuries. There are static and dynamic splints. Static splints require adjustment as the range of motion improves. Dynamic splints maintain a constant force to keep the stiff joint in a lengthened position.

How to Prevent Stiff Joints?

Having stiff joints can be uncomfortable and limiting in terms of trying to move from one place to another. Here’s how to prevent stiff joints:

  • Manage weight: Reducing body weight is important if you want to prevent the early onset of stiff joints. Weight-bearing joints like the knees are prone to pain and inflammation. Just one-kilogram increase in weight means that the knee joints have to bear four times more weight.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle: Activity can prevent stiff joints. Just light exercise can strengthen muscles around the joints and help reduce pressure on the joints.
  • Pacing exercise: Taking part in active exercising that strains the muscles and joints can be harmful. What you should do is pace activities so that you are increasing or decreasing intensity of exercises gradually.

We can’t stress the importance of exercise enough. Research shows that among older women who don’t have stiff, painful joints, at least 75 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week seems to be protecting them against arthritis-like symptoms. Research also indicates that 150 minutes of exercise per week may be even more protective. Many studies suggest that public health and other healthcare advocates should be constantly counseling older people on ways to be physically active to reduce their risk of developing stiff and/or painful joints.

When to See a Doctor for Stiff Joints?

Under some circumstances, stiff joints are simply the result of the way you’re sitting or due to overexertion. You should see a doctor if a joint becomes stiff and painful and you can’t pinpoint the reason, or if the stiffness and pain goes on for several days.


You should also seek medical attention if you experience severe pain, rapid swelling, joint deformity, are unable to move the joint, or have intense redness. While joint stiffness is common, especially as we age, it can also be the sign of an underlying condition.

In the majority of cases, a quick physical examination can determine what is causing the joint stiffness. However, the other tests involved in making a proper diagnosis are quick and painless. They can tell the doctor a lot about what might be happening with your joints and surrounding tissues. Once a diagnosis is established, you can begin a treatment plan to ease symptoms and reduce the risk of recurring stiffness and pain.

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Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.


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