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Morning Stiffness - What's the Significance in Arthritis?

Duration of Morning Stiffness Is Telling

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Updated August 20, 2014

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Question: Morning Stiffness - What's the Significance?

What is the significance of morning stiffness in the clinical picture of rheumatoid arthritis patients? Does it mean the patient is only stiff in the morning? Is it only characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis or of other forms of arthritis too?

Answer: Do your joints feel stiff when you wake up in the morning? This is a common question asked by doctors who take care of patients with arthritis. If the answer is yes, they might ask how long it takes to improve -- you know, how long before morning stiffness subsides.

Not everyone with arthritis feels stiff in the morning. Instead of stiffness, some complain they hurt more in the morning or describe discomfort without pain. The duration of symptoms in the morning is an important clue as to what type of arthritis you may have. For example, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus patients often complain of prolonged morning stiffness or pain which may last 45 minutes or longer.

On the other hand, osteoarthritis patients symptoms typically improve within 30 minutes but may be aggravated during the day with use of the affected joints. Fibromyalgia patients often complain of generalized morning pain and stiffness that may not get better for hours. If you plan to see a doctor for initial diagnosis and treatment of your arthritis, make sure you can convey how you feel in the morning.

If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you can expect your doctor to ask you about your morning stiffness during follow-up visits. Less morning stiffness or discomfort typically indicates that you are responding to treatment.

Answer provided by Scott J. Zashin, M.D., clinical assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Division of Rheumatology, in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Zashin is also an attending physician at Presbyterian Hospitals of Dallas and Plano. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Rheumatology and a member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Zashin is author of Arthritis Without Pain - The Miracle of Anti-TNF Blockers and co-author of Natural Arthritis Treatment.

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