Joint stiffness occurs when your joints lack the mobility to move smoothly through their full range of motion. When you have stiff joints, it can be difficult and sometimes painful to move parts of your body.
Joint stiffness often occurs alongside muscle stiffness, further limiting your range of motion and flexibility.
This article will discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatments for joint stiffness, as well as when to see a medical professional.
If you experience sudden joint stiffness with significant pain, bruising, redness and/or swelling seek medical attention immediately. These could be signs of an injury, infection, or autoimmune disease.
Joint stiffness symptoms
Joint stiffness is characterized by difficulty moving a joint through its full range of motion. This can limit your ability to move and coordinate different parts of your body. Joint stiffness can also cause other symptoms such as:
- Decreased range of motion
- Increased pressure in the joints
- Cracking or popping noises (crepitus) with movement
Causes of joint stiffness
Joint stiffness can result from injuries or conditions that cause inflammation of the joints or from a lack of movement and prolonged immobility. The most common causes of joint stiffness include:
Lack of movement
One of the most common causes of joint stiffness is lack of movement, which can occur from staying in one position for a long time, such as sitting or sleeping, or from immobilization, such as wearing a sling, a cast or splint. to limit your movements after an injury.
Injuries to joints, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles can cause swelling to build up in and around your joints, causing joint stiffness that limits your range of motion.
Osteoarthritis results from the breakdown of cartilage in the joints, causing stiffness, pain and swelling in the joints. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects the neck, back, fingers and hands, knees and hips.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own joints, causing joint inflammation that results in painful, red, stiff, and swollen joints. Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects the same joints on both sides of the body, most commonly in the hands, wrists and knees.
Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is an autoimmune disease that often develops as a complication of psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition that causes red, dry, itchy patches of skin. Psoriatic arthritis most commonly affects the fingers and toes, resulting in stiff joints and a swollen, sausage-like appearance.
Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the spine, most commonly leading to lower back pain and fatigue. Ankylosing spondylitis can also affect the knees, hips, and shoulders, causing joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Gout is an inflammatory condition that develops from increased levels of uric acid in the blood, causing crystals to deposit in the joints, most commonly affecting the big toes, causing joint pain, swelling and a stiffness.
Infection (septic arthritis)
A bacterial infection can infect the joints, most commonly the knees and hips, resulting in septic arthritis which causes joint swelling, stiffness and difficulty moving the joints, pain, fever and chills.
How to Treat Joint Stiffness
Treatment for joint stiffness differs depending on the underlying cause. For joint stiffness due to lack of movement or osteoarthritis, exercise and physical activity can help warm up and relax your joints.
If your joint stiffness is due to an injury, it will take some time for your stiffness to improve. Physical therapy and regular exercise can help speed your recovery and improve your ability to move your joints as much as possible.
Other treatments to help control your joint stiffness, especially if you are also experiencing a lot of pain, include medications like NSAIDs (aspirin and ibuprofen) and cortisone injections into your affected joints. Cortisone injections are anti-inflammatory steroid drugs that can help reduce inflammation and associated stiffness and pain.
If your joint stiffness is related to an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis, your healthcare provider may also recommend that you take certain types of medications like DMARDs or biologics.
These drugs can help decrease the autoimmune response to treat joint inflammation and stiffness and are usually given by intravenous fusion.
Other medications like colchicine or allopurinol to treat gout, or antibiotics to treat infection, may be needed to reduce joint stiffness and pain.
Complications and risk factors associated with joint stiffness
Stiff joints accompanied by swelling and pain are usually an indicator of some type of inflammation in your body, whether it’s an injury, an autoimmune disease, or another condition.
If left untreated, these problems can progress and lead to severe and sometimes permanent joint damage and disability.
Making an appointment with your healthcare provider to determine the underlying cause of your joint stiffness is important for protecting your joints.
Are there tests to diagnose the cause of joint stiffness?
Joint stiffness is initially assessed with a physical exam to observe the physical appearance of your joints and their ability to move. Imaging tests like X-rays and MRIs can examine your bones and structures in and around your joints to check for damage if you sustain an injury or have arthritis.
Your healthcare provider may also do blood tests if they suspect gout or an autoimmune disease is the cause of your joint stiffness.
If your joint stiffness is also accompanied by significant swelling, your healthcare provider may perform a procedure called arthrocentesis, in which fluid is removed or suctioned from your joint.
When to See a Health Care Provider
You should schedule a visit with your health care provider if you experience a sudden onset of joint pain and stiffness to check for signs of injury or infection.
You should also see your health care provider if you have chronic stiffness and swelling in your joints for several weeks or months to determine the underlying cause and receive appropriate treatment.
If you have stiff joints that become red, hot, swollen, and very painful, see a doctor right away. These are signs that you might have a serious infection or an autoimmune attack flare-up.
Joint stiffness can result from lack of movement, injury, infection, osteoarthritis, gout, or autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.
Applying heat, regular stretching and exercise, and physical therapy can help reduce joint stiffness to allow your joints to move more easily, although you may also need painkillers and cortisone injections to treat painful stiffness.
Joint stiffness due to autoimmune diseases often requires special medications given by intravenous infusion to help control chronic joint inflammation.
A word from Verywell
Joint stiffness often occurs due to a lack of movement or osteoarthritis, both of which can benefit from regular exercise to improve joint mobility, flexibility, and overall range of motion.
If your joint stiffness also occurs with significant swelling and pain, be sure to contact your health care provider to help determine the underlying cause. Painful, stiff, and swollen joints may indicate a more serious problem that requires specialized treatment to prevent permanent damage to your joints.
Frequently Asked Questions
What causes joint stiffness?
- Joint stiffness is caused by a lack of movement, injuries, or conditions that cause joint inflammation such as gout, osteoarthritis, or autoimmune forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis .
Can arthritis cause joint stiffness?
Arthritis can cause joint stiffness by causing inflammation in the joints due to the breakdown of cartilage. Autoimmune inflammatory forms of arthritis can also cause joint stiffness when the body produces an autoimmune response and attacks its own joints, causing joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and swelling.
How can I get rid of joint stiffness?
You can help treat joint stiffness by applying heat, stretching and exercising regularly, and taking different medications to treat the underlying cause.