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What Causes Joint Stiffness?

Common Symptom of Arthritis


Updated June 27, 2014

Question: What Causes Joint Stiffness?

Joint stiffness is a common characteristic of arthritis. Joint stiffness can be one of the earliest symptoms of arthritis, a sign that you should see a doctor for a thorough physical examination and accurate diagnosis.

What causes joint stiffness? Is joint stiffness always related to arthritis? Does joint stiffness always accompany joint swelling and joint pain? What measures or treatments can improve joint mobility and lessen joint stiffness?


The Cause of Joint Stiffness

Joint stiffness is 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 pain, or there may be swelling, redness, and warmth associated with the affected joint.

Other medical conditions can also cause joint stiffness, including bone diseases, cancer, joint trauma, or overuse of the joint.

What Is Joint Stiffness?

Joint stiffness is defined as discomfort after a period of inactivity (such as waking up in the morning or sitting for an extended period of time), decreased range of motion or a loss of range of motion in a joint.

With osteoarthritis, joint stiffness after waking may last up to 30 minutes. With inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or systemic lupus erythematosus, the stiffness typically lasts more than 45 minutes.

Treating Joint Stiffness

With proper treatment of arthritis (such as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or biologics for rheumatoid arthritis), the synovial inflammation and subsequent joint stiffness may significantly improve or completely resolve. If morning stiffness is a big problem, some patients will wake up early to take their arthritis medications and then go back to sleep. Others may take a long-acting anti-inflammatory medication or pain medication later in the evening so that they will feel better when they wake up.

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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