6 Ways to Combat Morning Stiffness: Tips from the RA Community

6 Ways to Combat Morning Stiffness: Tips from the RA Community

Last updated: May 2022

Most RA patients experience joint stiffness, but did you ever notice that you’re more stiff in the mornings? Defined as “slowness or difficulty moving the joints when getting out of bed or after staying in one position too long”, morning stiffness affects almost 90 percent of people living with RA.1,2

This month, we asked our community, “What do you do to deal with morning stiffness due to RA?”. Check out their ideas!

6 ways to combat RA morning stiffness

1. Take it slow!

  • “It usually takes me a couple hours to be fully functioning after I wake up, so I make sure to not schedule things for the morning if possible.”
  • “My children would ask, ‘Why do you have to get up so early, mom?’. I would always tell them ‘I have to thaw out.’”
  • “I give myself extra time to get up...It’s all about coming round slowly and gently - rushing is counterproductive as I’m much more likely to drop things or fall.”
  • “I get up at least 2 hours before I have to leave home. The answer for me is slow and steady.”

For many of our RA community members, the best way to combat morning stiffness is to start slowly. As one of our community members described it, giving herself some extra time to “thaw out” helps her to be more mobile and active throughout the day. Some patients set an earlier alarm so that they don’t have to rush out the door, and others avoid scheduling meetings or activities first thing. Over-doing it today can lead to more stiffness tomorrow, so for many of you, ‘slow and steady’ helps you stay loose!

2. Stretching

  • “I set alarms so that I can start moving around while in bed.”
  • “I get up slowly...and stretch.”
  • “I do stretches and range of motion checks on all my joints... I usually feel pretty good after that.”
  • “I do range of motion exercises as soon as I wake up. I also do them before bed, too. It helps immensely!”
  • “I try doing stretches, very slowly, that means legs, arms, my whole body...It seems to loosen me up and actually the pain and stiffness are much improved by the time my feet hit the floor.”

Exercises to improve flexibility and range of motion are important for any RA patient, but for some of you, gentle stretching is also the best way to combat morning stiffness. While some of you start the day with yoga poses or Pilates exercises, others begin to gently stretch before getting out of bed. If you’re able, consider these ideas for stretching, and talk to your healthcare provider about which stretches and range of motion exercises are best for you.

3. Physical activity

  • “I do Tai Chi, yoga, swimming, and others. To me, if I don't use it, I'll lose it...and I sure don't want to do that!”
  • “Go to the gym.”
  • “I do about 5 min at an extremely slow pace on my treadmill to help loosen my joints.”
  • “Go swimming at the local YMCA...This makes a world of difference in my day!”

If you’re feeling stiffness or discomfort due to RA, you may be less likely to exercise. Without exercise, joints can deteriorate, leading to increased muscle loss and pain.3 To avoid this cycle, people living with RA should try to exercise (as recommended by their healthcare provider). According to our community members, regular exercise also means less morning stiffness!

Some of you exercise in the morning to shake-off stiffness, while others prefer to be physically active later in the day. To combat morning stiffness, our community members enjoy a variety of physical activities, such as walking, yoga, aerobics, or swimming. In particular, swimming provides many health benefits for RA patients, include aerobic exercise, natural strength-training, and added buoyancy.4

4. Bring on the heat!

  • “I sleep with an electric blanket to keep my muscles warm.”
  • “I take a hot shower. I still deal with stiffness throughout the day, but this helps me to get started.”
  • “I have those hand warmers...I put them on as soon as I wake up.”
  • “Socks and warm robe and hot cup of coffee.”
  • “If I can, soaking in a warm bath is great. But sometimes a warm shower has to do.”
  • “Extra-long heating pad… I turn it off as I go to sleep, then turn on to warm up before I get up.”

To get comfortable during a flare, many of our community members turn to heat, including heating pads, heated blankets, and warm clothes. For many of you, extra heat also helps you to manage everyday stiffness, especially in the mornings. In bed, many community members loosen up with a heated blanket or heating pad, before turning to a hot coffee or tea.

During colder weather, which can make symptoms more intense for some patients, hot showers and baths may also reduce morning stiffness. Like swimming, a bath has the added bonus of relieving pressure from the joints, allowing you to slowly stretch out before beginning your day.

5. Medication relief

  • “I take my meds while still in bed so that by the time I have to get up, they have kicked in and I can move easier.”
  • “I got a new type of steroid you take at night. It’s 5mg with a coating on it. So it melts the coating when I sleep and I wake with it already working.”
  • “Two Tylenol, watch the morning news, and then I would be ready to go.”
  • “Put on lidocaine or magnesium cream on the stiffest/sorest joints.”
  • “Tylenol in a recliner for about an hour and half.”
  • “Take my meds early then lay back down. When I do get up, I make sure I apply topical gel.”

Although every patient has a different treatment regime, many community members rely on their medication routine to loosen up and get ready. Because the inflammation and pain-relieving effects of medications can take time, many patients take their medications several hours before they have to get out of bed or leave the house.

Some of you even take your medications and then lay down for an hour or two. According to these community members, by the time they get up, their morning stiffness has lessened. Before adjusting your medication routine or schedule, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.

6. Complementary & alternative medicine

  • “I have a morning drink made from high-quality essential oils.”
  • “I use acupressure cups, which is a Godsend for releasing muscle tension and loosening up the joints a bit.”
  • “I've started going to an acupuncturist once weekly, and he also put me on some Chinese herbs....no more pain or stiffness in the mornings or anytime!”
  • “The best relief I've gotten is to consistently use supplements and anti-inflammatory oils and products... I have found that natural options can help to support our bodies too.”
  • “Turn on the essential oil diffuser while doing gentle stretches and range of motion with every joint.”

To manage their RA symptoms, some community members rely on complementary medicine, including natural remedies, herbal pain-relievers, and other therapies. As described by many of you, these therapies (such as Eastern medicine, supplements, and essential oils) have reduced your morning stiffness, and complement your traditional RA treatments.

To reduce the impact of morning stiffness, community members use a variety of medications, treatments, and techniques. If you’re feeling burdened by morning stiffness, consider trying one (or a few!) of these strategies, and tell us what works for you!

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