Joint Stiffness and Arthritis

Joint stiffness is a common characteristic associated with arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. Joint stiffness can be one of the earliest symptoms of arthritis, a sign that you should see a doctor for a thorough physical examination and accurate diagnosis.

Man holding hip while rising from couch
Jeannot Olivet / E+ / Getty Images

While joint stiffness is a common arthritis symptom, it still comes with several questions:

  • What causes joint stiffness?
  • Is joint stiffness always related to a type of arthritis?
  • Does joint stiffness always accompany swelling and joint pain?
  • What treatments can improve joint mobility and lessen joint stiffness?

Joint stiffness can be caused by inflammation in the synovium, the lining of the joint. The abnormal synovial lining is the cause of many types of arthritis. The only physical expression of synovial involvement may be joint stiffness, but frequently pain, swelling, redness, and warmth also occur in the affected joint.

Arthritis is not the only condition associated with joint stiffness. Other medical conditions can also cause joint stiffness, including bone diseases, cancer, joint trauma, or overuse of the joint.

Detecting the Cause

Joint stiffness is defined as discomfort after a period of inactivity (such as waking up in the morning or sitting for an extended period of time), decreased range of motion, or a loss of range of motion in a joint, according to rheumatologist Scott J. Zashin, M.D. The Merck Manual also defines joint stiffness as difficulty in moving a joint. Patients tend to associate other factors with joint stiffness, including weakness, fatigue, and fixed rather than a temporarily limited range of motion.

The subtle details associated with joint stiffness help point to the associated cause or medical condition. Rheumatic diseases usually are associated with discomfort that occurs with movement of a joint after a period of rest. Increasingly severe joint inflammation is linked to more severe stiffness. Stiffness that occurs when a person gets up after sitting for a prolonged period, such as in a movie theater, is typical with osteoarthritis. Giving it a bit of time and walking slowly often helps that situation pass.

Joint stiffness after waking typically lasts up to 30 minutes in people with osteoarthritis. With inflammatory types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, psoriatic arthritis, or chronic viral arthritis, the stiffness characteristically lasts more than one hour. With low back pain, morning stiffness that lasts more than one hour may be indicative of ankylosing spondylitis. Joint stiffness that worsens as the day goes on is typically not related to inflammatory arthritis.

Clearly, how long joint stiffness lasts provides the first clue regarding the underlying condition. Then, doctors can order other diagnostic tests to further evaluate the suspected underlying condition. Doctors may also assess the muscles to rule out muscle rigidity or muscle spasticity.

Other Treatment

Beyond taking medication, patients may be helped by physical therapy, stretching, range-of-motion exercises, and heat. The goal of treatment is to ease the stiffness, as much as possible, and improve joint function.

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.
  • Evaluation of the Patient With Joint Disorders. Alexandra Villa-Forte, M.D., MPH. Merck Manual.
  • Joint Stiffness. Alexandra Villa-Forte, M.D., MPH. Merck Manual.

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.