Stiff and/or painful joints are not an inevitable part of life, but when they do occur, it’s often the result of aging. That’s what years of wear and tear can do on your body, taking their toll on your joints as well as on your muscles and bones with age being the most common factor, albeit not the only one.
One of two things naturally found in the body are usually at the crux of joint stiffness and pain. One is cartilage and the other is synovial fluid. The former is the spongy substance that helps protect the end of your bones, while the latter, synovial fluid, resembles engine oil in that it keeps your joints operating smoothly.
What happens with many people as they age is that the cartilage gradually dries out and stiffens. At the same time, your body starts making less synovial fluid, resulting in your joints not being able to move as freely as they once did, per webmd.com. In the case of synovial fluid, though, even as your joints start to move less freely, one of the best things you can do is to just keep moving – even more than usual, in fact, as the fluid needs the movement in order to keep the joints loose.
Sources of Joint Pain and Stiffness
Joint pain and stiffness can be caused by an assortment of factors, not just the fact that you are getting older. Some of these other sources include the following:
- Sleep. That’s right, sleep, as in those seven to eight hours a night, give or take, that are so important in helping your body to regenerate and recover from a day filled with plenty of physical activity (presumably) and stressors. However, the down side of sleep, if you can call it that, is that all those hours of lying relatively still also prevents the synovial oil from working to keep your joints lubricated. You feel it in the morning when you get up with knees, ankles, or fingers that are stiff and maybe even swollen. Got to keep moving to loosen up.
- Arthritis. The two most common types are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), although they are not exactly synonymous with one another. OA, also referred to as degenerative arthritis, per healthline.com, is typically the result of the wearing away of cartilage either in the wake of an injury or just over time, leaving bones at the site rubbing or grinding against one another, perhaps even breaking off pieces of bone, producing a stiff, swollen, and painful joint, per webmd.com. When it comes to RA, the culprit is a chronic inflammatory condition, an autoimmune disease in which your immune system starts assaulting healthy parts of your body, to include linings of joints. Other types of arthritis include ankylosing spondylitis (usually affecting the spine), gout (typically accompanied by the buildup of uric acid in your body), infectious arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis.
- Change in Weather. Yup, this is more than just an old wife’s tale. Usually such a change occurs when there is a drop in the atmosphere’s barometric pressure, indicating a storm is about to hit. So when Granny tells you her joints are starting to flare up, it’s time to run for cover.
- Lupus. Like RA, lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body essentially attacks itself, and not just the joints, either. Your organs and tissues are also vulnerable, per healthline.com.
- Bursitis. Cartilage is not the only material in your body serving to help protect your joints by acting as a cushion for bones, ligaments, and muscles that comprise the joint. Small, fluid-filled sacs known as bursae are also on hand to help buffer everything, but when those sacs become inflamed, the result is often stiffness and pain in the joint.
- Fibromyalgia. Per webmd.com, this is a chronic condition that not only produces pain in joints and muscles but also does a number on your sleep, mood, and even memory. Researchers aren’t sure what causes fibromyalgia, only that your brain apparently somehow worsens normal pain signals. This most often occurs following an illness, surgery, or intense stress.
- Joint injury. Usually involves inflammation related to long-term overuse or misuse of a joint.
- Bone cancer. Per healthline.com, even though bone cancer has been determined a rare cause for joint discomfort, it is a possibility.
Treatments for Joint Pain and Stiffness
First, if you are experiencing intense pain in a joint, injured it (possible fracture), the joint looks deformed, has swollen suddenly, or you can’t use it, it’s time to see a doctor as soon as you can. If the joint pain is not too intense but sticks around for three to five days, that’s also a good time to see your doctor. Surgery could be necessary. Otherwise, here are some treatment options for dealing with joint pain/stiffness:
- OTC products. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications can help with pain and swelling, such as with OA.
- Heat therapy. A hot shower or bath in the morning can help get the blood flowing to areas where needed and loosen things up. Moist heat pads can also help, including the home-remedy trick of putting a washcloth into a freezer bag and microwaving it for one minute.
- Cold therapy. Yes, this is not a misprint. Going between heat treatment and cold can work wonders. Icing down a painful joint can slow blood flow to the area and reduce the swelling. A cold pack or even a bag of frozen vegetables can help in this regard.
- Rest. Resting the affected joint may be needed for a few weeks. This can work well with bursitis.
- Exercise. Sometimes you need to keep moving. Low-impact, low-resistance movement can help.
- Nutritional supplements. These can include fish oil, flaxseed oil, and glucosamine sulfate.