Stiff Joints

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What are stiff joints?

Stiff joints are a symptom characterized by reduced mobility or impeded mobility of a joint. You may have difficulty moving the joint or you may be completely unable to move the joint. Joint stiffness may occur in one joint or be present in multiple joints.

There are many causes of stiff joints. Sudden joint stiffness may be due to an injury, while joint stiffness that develops and worsens over time may be due to an underlying disorder or disease. The primary cause of joint stiffness is arthritis, which is inflammation of the joints due to a variety of causes.

Stiff joints caused by injury often have a sudden onset. In other cases, stiff joints resulting from wear-and-tear damage or an underlying medical condition develop slowly and persist or worsen over time.

The duration and course of joint stiffness vary widely, depending on the cause. You may experience stiffness in the affected joint continuously, after specific activities, or at a certain times of the day. Joint stiffness may be accompanied by other joint symptoms, such as pain, inflammation, soreness and achiness.

Although life-threatening complications of stiff joints are rare, seek immediate medical care (call 911) for injuries that involve profuse bleeding or tissue damage or for stiff joints accompanied by high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit).

If your stiff joints are persistent, recurrent, or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with stiff joints?

Stiff joints may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the joints may also involve other body systems.

Joint symptoms that may occur along with stiff joints

Stiff joints may accompany other symptoms affecting the joints including:

  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Burning feeling
  • Itching feeling
  • Numbness
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Redness, warmth or swelling (edema) of the joints
  • Tingling or other unusual sensations

Other symptoms that may occur along with stiff joints

Stiff joints may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

    Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

    In some cases, stiff joints may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

    • Bone protruding from skin
    • Extensive bleeding
    • Fever not associated with flu symptoms
    • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

    What causes stiff joints?

    There are many causes of stiff joints. The primary cause of stiff joints is arthritis, which is inflammation of the joints. Sudden stiff joints may be due to an injury, while joint stiffness that develops and worsens over time may be due to an underlying disease or disorder.

    Arthritic causes of stiff joints

    Inflammation due to arthritis can cause joint stiffness. Examples of arthritic causes of stiff joints include:

    • Gout (type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints)
    • Osteoarthritis
    • Reiter’s syndrome (form of arthritis)
    • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
    • Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis)

    Traumatic causes of stiff joints

    A number of common injuries can cause stiff joints. These injuries include:

    • Bleeding within the joint space (hemarthrosis)
    • Broken bones
    • Dislocation of bones
    • Fragments of bone or cartilage within the joint space
    • Overuse injury
    • Repetitive motion disorders
    • Sprains and strains
    • Stress fractures

    Infectious causes of stiff joints

    A number of infectious diseases can cause stiff joints. These diseases include:

    Other causes of stiff joints

    Other causes of stiff joints include:

    • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
    • Leukemia (cancer of the blood or bone marrow)
    • Medication side effects or allergic reaction to medication
    • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
    • Spondylitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal joints)
    • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
    • Tendinitis

    Serious or life-threatening causes of stiff joints

    In some cases, stiff joints may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated by a health care provider. These include:

    • Cancers of the bone or soft tissues
    • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
    • Septic arthritis (infectious arthritis)

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of stiff joints

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your stiff joints including:

    • How long have you had your stiff joints?
    • Can you move your joint at all, or is motion completely restricted?
    • What joint or joints are affected?
    • What other symptoms are you experiencing?
    • When do your symptoms occur?
    • Are your symptoms worsened or relieved by movement or specific activities?

    What are the potential complications of stiff joints?

    Because stiff joints can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

    • Amputation
    • Disability
    • Inability to perform daily tasks
    • Joint deformity and destruction
    • Paralysis
    • Permanent joint immobility
    • Severe discomfort or pain
    • Spread of cancer
    • Spread of infection
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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 2
    1. Joint pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003261.htm
    2. Arthritis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002223/
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