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6 Ways to Help Ease Morning Stiffness

Managing RA

January 10, 2024

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Photography by Nenad Stojnev/Getty Images

Photography by Nenad Stojnev/Getty Images

by Cheryl Crow

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Medically Reviewed by:

Amy Elizabeth Wolkin, PT, DPT, MBA

•••••

•••••

by Cheryl Crow

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Amy Elizabeth Wolkin, PT, DPT, MBA

•••••

•••••

Gentle stretching, extra warmth, and compression are some of the methods I use to reduce morning symptoms from inflammatory arthritis.

When you live with an inflammatory type of arthritis, mornings can be hard, am I right?

Before I got my definitive diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the age of 21, I remember telling my doctor, “I feel like there is hot glue in my joints when I wake up!”

At the time, I didn’t know that there was an official name for this: “morning stiffness.”

My rheumatologist always asks if I experience morning stiffness, and if so, how long it lasts. When a new medication is working, one of the first things I notice is that I wake up without that familiar dull, warm ache, and stiffness in my joints.

I want to share some of my best tips for reducing morning stiffness. These tips come from 2 decades of living with RA, plus my experience as an occupational therapist.

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Is it morning stiffness, or inactivity stiffness?

8 years after my initial diagnosis of RA, while studying for my Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, I learned about the “gel phenomenon.” This refers to when the synovial fluid in your joints, which normally is slippery like oil, becomes stiff after inactivity or low physical activity. This is exactly what happens after we’ve been sleeping.

For those of us living with inflammatory types of arthritis, such as RA and psoriatic arthritis (PsA), this can last for roughly an hour or more in the morning.

After learning that inactivity can directly lead to joint stiffness, I had a lightbulb moment. Maybe “morning stiffness” isn’t just about the time of day; it’s about the amount of time you’ve been inactive?

In other words, let’s say someone works the night shift and sleeps from the morning until the late afternoon — they would likely experience stiffness after sleeping as well, due to their joints being less active for the 7–8 hours they have been sleeping.

So, whenever you experience your “morning stiffness,” whether in the morning or not, I hope these tips will help.

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1. Gentle stretching and exercise

Since we now know that morning stiffness comes from inactivity, the logical antidote is to get those joints moving. You might have heard the phrase “motion is lotion” for people with arthritis.

Gentle movement is important to help the synovial fluid within your joints move more smoothly.

While stretching, you should feel a slight tension but not hot acute pain. It’s a good idea to go slow and listen to your body. If you’re having severe pain, it’s wise to seek guidance from your doctor, physical therapist, or occupational therapist.

You’ve probably already seen lists of exercises and stretches for arthritis, such as those I’ve suggested for hand pain. If you’re like me, you might find it hard to remember the specifics of each exercise or what order to do them in.

I find it helpful to think of stretching in the most simple terms possible — think about all the ways each joint can move comfortably, and then simply move your joints through their range of motion.

For example, this is what I do for my finger joints:

  1. I start with my fingers all in a fist.
  2. I slowly extend them so that they are straight.
  3. I move them together and apart like windshield wipers.
  4. I keep my four fingers straight but bend at the knuckles.
  5. I do this again but bend at the “pip,” which is the joint in the middle of your finger.
  6. I then move on to thumb-specific exercises and stretches, like thumb opposition, which involves touching my thumb to the base of my pinky joint.

Go from joint to joint and slowly move them in ways that are possible for you.

2. Turn up the heat

The second biggest tip, after movement, is getting my body warm.

This can be through a bath, shower, heating pad, or even just putting on warm clothes like my favorite sweatpants and sweatshirts. I also like laying under a weighted blanket, although in my experience, people with RA or PsA tend to either love the weighted blanket or hate it.

Warmth isn’t just comforting — it has a physical effect on your body’s tissues, including those within and around your joints. Warmth improves circulation and blood flow and can help reduce your morning stiffness, particularly when combined with gentle stretching.

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3. Give your joints a gentle hug through compression

Another suggestion that provides comfort during my morning stiffness is giving my joints a “hug” through compression. I have compression gloves, socks, and even tights, which are especially helpful if I have swelling in my knees, hips, or ankles.

Compression can reduce the sensation of pain, and can also promote blood flow in a similar fashion as heat.

It’s important to have a gentle amount of compression that doesn’t severely restrict your range of motion or cut off your circulation. Numbness or feelings of pins and needles would indicate that your circulation is being cut off.

It might take some trial and error to find the right amount of compression for you. For some suggestions about the best compression gloves, check out this article.

4. Practice mindfulness

The idea of mindfulness as a method to ease morning stiffness might seem out of the blue, but it’s important to recognize the mind-body connection.

When I wake up feeling tense and stressed due to my morning stiffness, it can lead to a vicious cycle of more stress, leading to more muscle tension, leading to more inflammation, leading to more pain, which then leads to more stress. It’s truly exhausting.

Mindfulness practices like simple deep breathing (even for five breaths) help center me and stop that vicious stress cycle from spiraling out of control. I also find it helpful to repeat comforting affirmations, like “This shall pass,” “I can do hard things,” and “My now is not my forever.”

There are a lot of different styles of mindfulness, including types of meditation and even gardening!

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5. Plan your mornings carefully

If you consistently experience morning stiffness that makes it hard for you to complete your morning routine, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and make your morning tasks as easy as possible.

I like to have all my favorite arthritis gadgets at the ready. This includes my wide-grip hair brush, scalp massager for applying shampoo during my shower, easy-to-put-on clothes and shoes/slippers, compression gloves, heating pads, topical pain creams, and more.

I also like to prepare my breakfast the day before when I’m feeling more energetic and less stiff.

You could also lean into the art of delegation. If you have a partner or children, see if they can take some of the load off your morning routine by taking care of any household chores.

6. Connect with your medical team if morning stiffness worsens

For me, morning stiffness is a pretty good litmus test as to whether my current medications are adequately treating my RA.

Most rheumatologists nowadays practice a “treat to target” approach where the goal is to get your condition into remission or minimal disease as quickly as possible. This means they want to see as few symptoms and markers in your bloodwork of active inflammation as possible.

If I have worsening morning stiffness, it’s an indication that I might need to switch up my treatment plan. This could involve adding a new medication, increasing the frequency or doses of my current medications, or something else.

It’s a good idea to keep your medical team posted if your morning stiffness is worsening, especially if it’s lasting longer or feeling more uncomfortable.

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The takeaway

It can be so disheartening to start the day with morning stiffness.

I hope that I’ve given you some helpful tips to ease your morning stiffness and get you on your way to having the best day possible. I’d love to hear other suggestions you may have!

Medically reviewed on January 10, 2024

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About the author

Cheryl Crow

Cheryl Crow is an occupational therapist who’s lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 19 years. In 2019, Cheryl started Arthritis Life to help others thrive despite arthritis. She facilitates online courses and support groups to help people adjust to their conditions and live full and meaningful lives. Most days you can find Cheryl creating life hack videos, sharing patient stories on the Arthritis Life Podcast, or spreading the word about acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

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