Many people experience stiff joints as they age. Others may experience joint stiffness due to medical conditions and lifestyle choices. Sometimes, people can treat stiff joints at home.

Many people who experience joint stiffness tend to feel it after sitting for prolonged periods or after first waking up. Some people experience a mild discomfort that goes away after moving again. Others find that the stiffness lasts longer and is more uncomfortable.

In more severe situations, stiff joints may impact a person’s mobility. People may have difficulty putting weight on their joint or have problems standing or walking. Some factors that may cause joint stiffness include:

What are the causes?

Most people will experience joint stiffness at some point. Age is a common cause of joint stiffness due primarily to a lifetime of use. When age is the primary reason for stiff joints, any number of joints may be affected.

Common causes include:

Bursitis

Stiff joints in elbow held by woman.
Resting a joint affected by bursitis may cause any stiffness or pain to pass.

Bursitis develops when tiny, fluid-filled sacs in the joints called bursae become inflamed. The inflammation causes pain as well as stiffness.

Bursitis can happen in nearly any joint, but it is most common in larger joints, such as:

  • shoulders
  • hips
  • knees
  • ankles
  • elbow

It is also common in the big toe.

Bursitis usually heals by itself with rest. A person should typically:

  • reduce activities that move the joint
  • rest the joint for long periods

Resting the joint allows the bursae to recover, causing the pain and stiffness to go away.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative type of arthritis that affects nearly 27 million people in the United States. This type of arthritis is due to wear and tear and is, therefore, more frequently seen in people over the age of 65.

Osteoarthritis often affects:

  • fingers
  • hips
  • knees
  • back
  • neck

As it progresses it can cause:

  • swelling and pain
  • cracking noises with movement

Treatments usually center around relieving pain and reducing swelling in the joints. People whose osteoarthritis is particularly painful and debilitating may require surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of joint stiffness.
Arthritis is one of the most common causes of joint stiffness.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another common arthritis that affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S. RA typically appears in younger adults between the ages of 30 and 60.

RA is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack otherwise healthy joints. People with RA will experience pain and swelling as the body attacks the joints.

There is no cure for RA. Treatments focus on slowing the progression of the disease.

Lupus

Lupus is another autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue, such as muscles and joints. When lupus attacks the joints, symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • stiffness
  • pain

Lupus is often difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms are similar to other medical conditions. There is no cure and symptoms will get worse over time.

Treatment focuses on treating the symptoms. Available treatments tend to be effective in helping people find symptom relief.

Gout

Gout is a sudden onset arthritis that tends to affect males more often than females. Gout is a condition that develops quickly, with symptoms sometimes appearing overnight, often in the big toe.

Symptoms include:

  • severe pain
  • severe tenderness
  • stiff joints
  • swelling and increased warmth of the joint

Gout can develop in any joint. Gout will typically appear for a short period and go away. People with gout often get symptoms on and off throughout their life.

Treatment focuses on reducing the severity of the symptoms and lowering levels of uric acid in the blood.

When to see a doctor

Doctor inspecting patients knee for joint pain as they sit on bed.
Loss of normal mobility in a joint should be investigated by a doctor.

People do not need to see their doctor if joint stiffness typically occurs first thing in the morning or after sitting for extended periods.

But if stiffness comes on suddenly or does not go away after a few days, people should speak to their doctor.

People should also speak to their doctor if they have:

  • rapid swelling
  • severe pain
  • deformity of the joints
  • joint redness that is hot to touch
  • loss of mobility in the joint

Stiff joints can be a sign of a more significant health problem. People should speak to their doctor about their symptoms if in any doubt.

What are the home remedies?

There are many over-the-counter (OTC) and home remedies to help alleviate the pain and swelling.

Many of these remedies can be carried out alongside other treatments that a doctor has recommended or prescribed. It is essential that people speak to their doctor if the cause of joint pain is unknown, comes on suddenly, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

Home remedies include:

  • using hot and cold compresses
  • taking OTC anti-inflammatories
  • losing excess weight
  • doing exercise
  • eating a balanced diet
  • taking supplements, such as fish oil and glucosamine sulfate

Takeaway

Many people will experience joint stiffness as they age. Most often this stiffness will wear off after a person gets up and moves around. Other people, however, may experience joint stiffness as a result of an underlying condition.

Anyone who has any doubt about the cause of their joint stiffness should speak to their doctor to help rule out or treat a potential underlying condition. With proper treatment and some home remedies, a person can typically relieve their stiff joints.