Causes of Morning Stiffness From Arthritis

Morning stiffness is a common problem for people with arthritis. For some people, it's the most severe pain they have all day.

This symptom can impair or interfere with your ability to function and perform activities of daily living. In this article, you'll get a look at the possible causes of morning stiffness from arthritis and how to deal with it.

An older man with back pain
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Causes of Morning Stiffness

Morning stiffness is a persistent problem for many people with arthritis, even if they have a regular treatment regimen.

This symptom can vary with the type of arthritis you have. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis or another type of inflammatory arthritis, your morning stiffness will likely last more than an hour—or even for several hours.

Morning stiffness that goes away after half an hour or less is more likely to be osteoarthritis or another non-inflammatory, musculoskeletal condition.

Gel Phenomonon

A possible cause of morning stiffness is called the "gel phenomenon."

Inside your joints, there's a liquid called synovial fluid. When your joints stay still for a long time, this fluid may get thick or "gel-like." Once you start moving, the fluid returns to normal.

Low Cortisol

Some researchers think morning stiffness has to do with hormone fluctuations over a 24-hour cycle. It's suspected that some conditions involve low nighttime levels of the hormone cortisol.

Low cortisol overnight leaves your body unable to tamp down cells called pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6). That means you wake up with extra inflammation.

Cortisol levels tend to peak in the morning, so the hormone is able to gradually decrease cytokine levels and give you some relief.

Dealing With Morning Stiffness

You may be able to manage morning stiffness with medication or changes in your habits. Start by bringing up this symptom with your healthcare provider.

A prescription drug called Rayos is a delayed-release form of the corticosteroid prednisone, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Rayos is generally taken around 10 p.m. and it releases the medication about four hours later. That's thought to be the best time to suppress IL-6.

Some habits that also may help include:

  • Supporting your joints while you sleep, possibly with pillows or braces
  • Staying warm by using electric blankets or heating pads, or turning up the thermostat
  • Doing simple stretching exercises before you get out of bed
  • Taking a hot shower first thing in the morning to relax your joints and muscles
  • Doing light exercise once you begin to loosen up
  • Trying to let go of stress before going to bed
  • If possible, delaying activity until later in the day, such as requesting a later start time at work or not making early appointments

Some methods may work better for you than others. Experiment with different changes and see what helps.

Summary

Morning stiffness is a significant problem for some people with arthritis. In inflammatory types of arthritis, it may last for several hours. In non-inflammatory forms, such as osteoarthritis, it generally goes away in less than half an hour.

Morning stiffness may be caused by "gelling" of joint fluid or low overnight levels of cortisol, which may lead to inflammation.

Medications or changes in habits may help. Talk to your healthcare provider about potential treatments.

A Word From Verywell

Morning stiffness can affect your productivity and overall quality of life. Fortunately, it's often a manageable symptom.

If your morning stiffness doesn't seem to be consistent with expectations for your type of arthritis, ask your healthcare provider about it. You may not have the right diagnosis or treatments.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I have stiff joints in the morning?

    Stiff joints in the morning can be due to osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or joint aging.

    OA stiffness generally lasts for less than half an hour. RA can make joints stiff for hours. Stiffness from aging usually lasts for 15 minutes or less.

  • How do I prevent muscle stiffness in the morning?

    Keep yourself warm, do some simple stretches, make sure your joints are supported while you sleep, and try showering first thing in the morning.

    Depending on the cause of your stiffness, your healthcare provider may be able to prescribe medication to help.

  • Why do I have shoulder pain after waking up in the morning?

    Morning shoulder pain has several possible causes:

    Talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

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8 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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