Joint Stiffness: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

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 also often occurs alongside muscle tightness, which further limits your range of motion and flexibility. 

This article will discuss joint stiffness symptoms, causes, and treatments as well as when to see a healthcare provider. 

Woman bending over touching her knee.

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If you experience sudden joint stiffness accompanied by significant pain, bruising, redness, and/or swelling, seek medical attention immediately. These could be signs of an injury, infection, or autoimmune condition. 

Symptoms of Joint Stiffness

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 may also cause other symptoms such as:

  • Pain
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Increased pressure within joints
  • Swelling
  • Cracking or popping sounds (crepitus) with movement

Causes of Joint Stiffness

Joint stiffness can result from injuries or conditions that cause joint inflammation or from 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 the same position for a long period of time, such as sitting or sleeping, or with immobilization, such as wearing a sling, cast, or brace to limit your movement after injury. 

Injuries

Injuries to your joints, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles can cause swelling to accumulate in and around your joints, which causes joint stiffness that limits your range of motion. 

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis results from the breakdown of cartilage within joints, causing joints to become stiff, painful, and swollen. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects the neck, back, fingers and hands, knees, and hips.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition 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

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is an autoimmune condition that often develops as a complication of psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition that causes red, dry, itchy skin patches. Psoriatic arthritis most commonly affects the fingers and toes, resulting in stiff joints and a swollen, sausage-like appearance. 

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the spine, most often resulting in low back pain and fatigue. Ankylosing spondylitis can also affect the knees, hips, and shoulders, causing joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.

Gout

Gout is an inflammatory condition that develops from increased uric acid levels in the blood, causing crystals to deposit within joints, most often affecting the big toes, causing joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Infection (Septic Arthritis)

A bacterial infection can infect joints, most commonly the knees and hips, leading to septic arthritis that causes joint swelling, stiffness and difficulty with joint movement, pain, fever, and chills.

How to Treat Joint Stiffness

Treatment for joint stiffness will differ depending on the underlying cause. For joint stiffness due to lack of movement or osteoarthritis, exercise and physical activity can help warm up and loosen 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 expedite 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're also in a lot of pain, include medications like NSAIDs (aspirin and ibuprofen) and cortisone injections into your affected joints. Cortisone injections are anti-inflammatory steroid medications that can help decrease inflammation and related stiffness and pain.

If your joint stiffness is related to an autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis, your healthcare provider may also recommend taking certain types of medications like DMARDs or biologics.

These medications can help decrease the autoimmune response to treat joint inflammation and stiffness and are typically administered through an IV fusion.

Other medications like colchicine or allopurinol to treat gout, or antibiotics to treat an infection, may be needed to reduce your joint stiffness and pain.

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Joint Stiffness

Stiff joints accompanied by swelling and pain are typically an indicator of some type of inflammation going on within your body, whether it’s from an injury, autoimmune disorder, or another condition.

If left untreated, these issues can progress and lead to serious and sometimes permanent joint damage and disability.

Scheduling 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 through a physical examination 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 experience an injury or may have arthritis. 

Your healthcare provider may also perform blood work if they suspect that gout or an autoimmune condition is causing your joint stiffness.

If your joint stiffness is also accompanied by significant swelling, your healthcare provider may perform a procedure called arthrocentesis, by which fluid is removed, or aspirated, from your joint.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should schedule a visit with your healthcare provider if you experience a sudden onset of pain and joint stiffness to check for signs of injury or infection. 

You should also see your healthcare provider if you have been experiencing chronic stiffness and swelling within 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, seek immediate medical attention. These are signs that you may have a serious infection or flare-up of an autoimmune attack. 

Summary 

Joint stiffness can result from lack of movement, injuries, infections, osteoarthritis, gout, or autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.

Applying heat, regular stretching and exercise, and physical therapy can help decrease joint stiffness to allow your joints to move more smoothly, though you may also need pain medications and cortisone injections to treat painful stiffness.

Joint stiffness from autoimmune conditions often requires special medications given through IV infusions to help control chronic joint inflammation. 

A Word From Verywell 

Joint stiffness often occurs from 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, make sure to contact your healthcare 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 lack of movement, injuries, or conditions that cause joint inflammation like 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 joint inflammation from the breakdown of cartilage. Inflammatory autoimmune 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 different medications to treat the underlying cause. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT
Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.