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How to Manage Morning Stiffness

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 01, 2020

Do you wake up in the morning with stiff joints that are hard to move? Medications may help prevent morning stiffness, and there are nondrug treatments you can try to loosen up your stiff joints so you can begin your day.

Arthritis Is the Usual Cause

Morning stiffness is common in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that affects your joints. It may also be a symptom of other joint conditions like:

If you have OA, morning joint stiffness usually stops after a few minutes. RA morning stiffness can last up to an hour more.

Long-lasting morning stiffness usually means inflammation is to blame. In RA, your immune system attacks the synovium, the tissue lining your joints, and causes inflammation. It’s the inflammation that causes RA symptoms like stiff, painful joints.

Longer periods of morning stiffness may mean your inflammation is higher or that your disease is more active.

Which Joints Feel Stiff?

Morning stiffness often affects small joints, like those in your hands, fingers, wrists, and toes. You may wake up and feel like you can’t bend your fingers or make a fist. Morning stiffness can also show up in your elbows, shoulders, neck, or other joints.

How to Manage Morning Stiffness

Medications can ease RA symptoms like morning stiffness. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen are available over the counter to treat arthritis pain and inflammation. They come in stronger doses by prescription only.

Other RA drugs your doctor may prescribe include:

Topical drugs. These pass into your body through your skin to treat your arthritis symptoms. Many are available over the counter. Stronger topical medicines, like NSAIDs, are available by prescription.

Rub topical creams or gels into the skin around stiff joints like your hands, fingers, or knees. You may need to use some topicals several times a day for a couple of weeks to feel relief.

Topical medicines include capsaicin made from hot chili peppers, and things like menthol or camphor, which make your skin feel cool or hot. Other topicals include salicylates, which contain the same pain reliever as aspirin, and numbing creams like lidocaine.

Herbs and supplements. Herbal treatments like fish oil, evening primrose, borage, or black currant oils may ease joint stiffness from arthritis. Check with your doctor before you buy and try any supplement.

Stretching and exercise. Each day take time to stretch your joints and get some gentle exercise. Stretching daily helps to loosen stiff joints and improve your range of motion. Take a walk, ride a bike, or go for a swim as part of your regular routine. Tai chi is another gentle exercise that keeps your joints more flexible.

Try a gentle stretching routine each morning to ease joint stiffness and get your body ready for the day. A physical therapist (PT) can help you learn specific exercises to treat and prevent joint stiffness.

Heat. These treatments can boost blood circulation in your joints, which can ease stiffness:

  • Take a hot shower or soak in the tub.
  • Apply a heating pad or hot compress, like a washcloth, to your joints.
  • Dip stiff hands or feet into a warm paraffin wax bath.
  • Heat up a damp, soft towel in your microwave for 20 seconds and wrap it around your stiff joints.

Rearrange your schedule. If your joint stiffness makes it hard to work in the mornings, see if your employer can shift your hours. You may also need some time off when your symptoms are flaring.

Control your stress. It can make symptoms like morning stiffness worse. Try techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation, or guided imagery to reduce stress and keep it under control.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Waking Up Stiff? How ‘Morning Gel’ Can Affect Your Joints + Tips for Relief,” “What’s Better for Soothing Arthritis Pain: Ice or Heat?”

Mayo Clinic: “Ankylosing spondylitis,” “Arthritis pain: Treatments absorbed through your skin,” “Osteoarthritis,” “Psoriatic arthritis,” “Rheumatoid arthritis,” “Stress Management.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Explain the Pain -- Is It osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?”

Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: “Rheumatoid Arthritis Signs and Symptoms.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Heat Therapy Helps Relax Stiff Joints,” “Get in the Habit of Stretching,” “Rheumatoid Arthritis,” “Working When You Have Arthritis.”

National Health Service: “Rheumatoid arthritis.”

National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society: “Benefits of Tai Chi for RA,” “Exercise and Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Marshfield Clinic Health System: “Stiff & sore? 6 morning stretches to help.”

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