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Joint Stiffness and Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Physical Exams: Checking for Joint Stiffness

See a doctor to assess joint stiffness, pain, or swelling that lasts more than two weeks. Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist, a doctor trained in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and other diseases of joints, muscles, and bones.

Bring information about your joint symptoms and note whether you have any that are unrelated to your joints, such as fatigue or weight loss. Pain is often a partner to joint stiffness. Do your best to describe it. You may think of joint stiffness as a type of vague muscle ache. That's partly because symptoms may be subtle at first. 

The doctor will assess your joint's mobility. You may be asked to move the joint to check its active range of motion. If the doctor moves the joint to examine its mobility, this is called passive range of motion. Your doctor will also check your joint for swelling, enlargement, and tenderness.

A variety of tests can help your doctor evaluate your joints and check for signs of systemic disease.

Treating Joint Stiffness

Pay attention to early signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, such as joint stiffness. Early, aggressive treatment can greatly limit joint damage. Your doctor will help you develop a plan for treatment, which may include medications and several types of therapy. 

Medications. A variety of medications are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. When given early enough, some interrupt the progression of the disease by reducing inflammation and preventing joint damage. Others help relieve symptoms of joint stiffness and pain. 

You may take a combination of medications, such as:

  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Biologic response modifiers (a category of DMARDs)
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
  • Analgesics

Therapies. A program of physical therapy and exercises can help improve mobility, reduce pain, and increase flexibility and strength. Heat -- delivered through hot packs, electric mittens, ultrasound, or spas, for example -- can help relieve joint stiffness and pain. Hydrotherapy involves exercising and relaxing in warm water. Cold works best for acutely inflamed joints. Relaxation techniques help release muscle tension, relieving stiffness and pain. An occupational or physical therapist can teach you how to use your body so you can reduce stress on your joints, for example, by using the strongest joint available to do a job. This is called good body mechanics.

Self-Care for Joint Stiffness and Pain

You can take other steps as well to help relieve joint stiffness and pain. For example, weight control reduces stress on joints. Exercise can also strengthen muscles and joints. Water aerobics is a good choice. It improves your range of motion without putting extra stress on joints.

To protect your joints, alternate between periods of rest and activity. But at least once a day, gently move your joints through their range of motion. If needed, use assistive devices to reduce joint stress and relieve pain.

 

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 11, 2014
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