Managing Arthritis

10 tips to manage morning stiffness in your joints

A woman with arthritis back pain in the morning

The morning can be a tough time of day when you live with arthritis. Painful, stiff joints, and our fingers, for example, might feel like you're wearing extremely tight, rigid gloves that make it difficult to use your hands.

Whether you have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or another form of inflammatory arthritis, here are 10 tips to beat morning stiffness in your joints.

1.Start before you get up

Try some gentle range of motion exercises while you're still in bed, advises Lauren Macgillivray, Arthritis Society occupational therapist. "Gently move through a comfortable range of movement for the affected joints, back and forth, five to 10 times in a row. That helps to loosen up the joints and get rid of some of that pain and stiffness before getting the day started. If you're not sure what will work for you, work with an occupational therapist or a physiotherapist to learn specific exercises for your needs."

2. Think heat

"One of the most effective tips is using heat first thing in the morning," says Macgillivray. Warm water can work wonders on stiff joints, either a bath, shower or simply running stiff hands under the hot water faucet. Heating pads or blankets, or cloth bags filled with rice or other grains you warm in the microwave, may also be helpful. If your home is cold in the morning, a programmable thermostat set 30 minutes before you get out of bed can make your surroundings toastier.

3. Consider creams and oils

"I teach people how to do an oil and glove routine, which has very similar benefits to what you would use if you were doing paraffin wax baths, but it's more convenient," says Danielle Hogg, an Arthritis Society occupational therapist. Apply mineral oil on the hands, then slip on oversized rubber dish gloves. Soak your hands in a basin of hot water and then do some gentle range of motion exercises. Over-the-counter creams, either medicated or unmedicated, can create a heating effect on your skin and joints, or help reduce inflammation. "Check with your doctor or your pharmacist to see if it's okay for you to use," cautions Macgillivray, explaining that if you're already taking an oral version of a medication, it may not be wise to add in the topical version.

4. Pay attention to positions

Proper support when you sleep can help you avoid awkward positions that contribute to morning stiffness. Choose a firm - but not too firm - mattress and a pillow that works with your sleeping position (back, side or front). Use pillows to keep your body in proper alignment as well. If you curve your wrist or clench your hands when you sleep, an occupational therapist can help you find a splint that keeps your affected joint in a more relaxed and neutral position.

5. Plan for success

What can make your morning routine better? It could be something big, like shifting your bedroom to the main floor so you can avoid the stairs. It could be something small, like setting your alarm so you have enough time if you're moving slowly. Or, prepping your breakfast as much as possible the night before. Other ideas include splitting the drive to school so that another parent does the morning run while you do after-school. Or, discussing a later start or working from home with your employer if you are experiencing a bad arthritis flare.

6. Choose your tools

"An ergonomic tool or device can help you accomplish things in the morning, especially with your hands if, for example, you're having trouble closing your hand fully," says Macgillivray. Examples include having doorknobs replaced with levers so they are easier to turn, using adaptive door openers, and trying cutlery and tools, such as can openers, that have a wider handle or built-up grip. Here's a list of useful assistive devices.

7. Prioritize sleep

Get your Zzzzs! "We know that having poor sleep quality or decreased amounts of sleep can cause increases in how much pain you experience as well as your perception of pain. So, getting better sleep can help with those symptoms," says Macgillivray.

8. Eat right

Make sure to choose anti-inflammatory foods. Avoid sugars and processed foods, says Hogg. Boosting your intake of food with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants that have been proven to reduce inflammation in the body is a smart move as well. Also consider prepping your meals in advance!

9. Keep moving

High-activity days can lead to soreness and stiffness the next morning, so build extra time into your schedule to get up and moving. Not being active can be a problem too, says Macgillivray. "That comes back to inactivity of the joints or the joint spending a prolonged amount of time in a certain position." So, keep a mix of strengthening, flexibility and endurance exercises in your day!

10. Talk to your doctor

"One of the more important management strategies for morning stiffness is just to make sure you're taking your medications as directed. And if you find that morning stiffness is still one of your most concerning symptoms, then have a discussion with your doctor about the timing of your medication or dosage so that it's most effective first thing in the morning," says Macgillivray.

Why does morning stiffness happen in arthritis?

In osteoarthritis, the joint isn't moving much at night, so it's not getting the lubrication it needs to slide smoothly, says Macgillivray. Morning stiffness associated with osteoarthritis typically subsides after 30 minutes or less as you get up, move around and pump lubrication through the stiff joint. "However, the cause of morning stiffness with inflammatory arthritis (like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis) is thought to be caused by inflammation that builds within your joints as you rest overnight, and it reaches peak levels in the morning," she says. Rheumatoid arthritis-related joint stiffness often lasts an hour or more in the morning.