Written by Leslie A. Vandever
Medically Reviewed on January 7, 2014 by George Krucik, MD, MBA
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Morning Stiffness Is Common
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. It can be disabling, sometimes permanently. There’s no cure for RA, but there are many medications that can slow the disease’s progress and help relieve the pain it causes.
Joint stiffness upon rising in the morning is one of RA’s most common symptoms. Rheumatologists consider morning stiffness that lasts at least an hour a key diagnostic aspect of RA. Although the stiffness usually loosens and goes away, it can take some time to do so.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to gently ease morning stiffness.
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Take pain medications an hour or so before getting out of bed in the morning.
As you get ready for bed at night, put a dose of pain medication, a glass of water, and a couple of saltines on your nightstand. Set your alarm clock for an hour before your usual wake-up time.
When the alarm goes off in the morning, don’t get up. Just swallow the pain medication with plenty of water. Eat the saltines to help prevent stomach upset. Then re-set your alarm for your usual wake-up time.
Relax. Breathe. Allow yourself to slip softly back to sleep.
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Exercise in Bed
By the time your alarm rings, the pain medication should be working. But don’t get up quite yet. Stretch gently and do some range-of-motion exercises. It will help warm up your sleepy muscles and loosen those creaky joints.
Lying on your back, still covered up and warm, stretch your muscles and flex the joints in your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, first on one side and then the other. Flex, then release. Don’t rush. Turn your head from side to side, loosening your neck.
Do the same with your toes, ankles, knees, and hips, stretching and moving them as much as you can, slowly and gently. When your joints feel less stiff and painful, get up.
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Hit the Showers
Taking a warm bath or shower is one of the best ways to help relieve morning stiffness. Heat causes the blood to move to the surface of the skin, flushing and warming your joints along the way.
In the bath, try for a warm, 10- to 20-minute soak as you continue to gently move and exercise your joints. Massage them with a washcloth. In the shower, if you have a handheld showerhead, direct the spray to massage stiff, sore joints. Stay in long enough to get nice and warm.
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Put Your Dryer to Work
Before you get dressed for the day, pop your clothes into the dryer for five minutes. Use the highest heat setting. Then go make your coffee, pour your cereal, or put an egg on to boil.
When the dryer beeps, get your thoroughly heated clothes out and put them on. The penetrating warmth from the dryer is soothing and will help to loosen up your stiff, achy joints.
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Eat a Good Breakfast
By now about 14 hours have passed since dinner the night before. Now morning is here and you’re running on empty. Your body needs fuel!
Eating a light but nutritious breakfast can help to ease morning stiffness. An egg or yogurt with whole grain toast, or a bowl of hot or cold whole grain cereal with milk or soymilk, will give your body the energy it needs to get started.
As an autoimmune disease, RA makes your body attack its own joints. However, your body is also defending itself from other attacks, and constantly repairing damage from these attacks. By starting off your day with a healthy breakfast, you’re fueling your body up so it can function normally.
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Put on the Heat
Warming salves or lotions can help to ease stiff, sore joints. The warmth, massaged into the skin over the joint, is penetrating and generally lasts for quite a while.
Cloth bags filled with uncooked rice, beans, or other organic substances make terrific heat packs. Zapped for a minute or so in the microwave, they get deliciously warm and can stay that way for at least 30 minutes. Electric heating pads work well, too.
If your office is chilly, a small space heater placed strategically under your desk can also help with easing morning stiffness in the joints.
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Move Your Body Every Day
RA can make exercise difficult. When a joint flares up, it can hurt too much to even move it. It’s also easy to overdo exercising when you’re feeling good, which can cause a new flare. The key? Don’t stress painful joints, but do try to move all the others.
Walking for 15 or 20 minutes a day strengthens the muscles that support your joints. Stretching and moving your joints through simple, gentle, range-of-motion exercises helps to keep them from getting stiff and weak.
Keeping your body fit and strong can reduce the amount of time it takes to relieve stiffness and get going in the morning.
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Don’t Stress, Ask For Help
Mornings are always busy. But when your joints are stiff and painful, they can be even harder. So go ahead: ask for help from your family or friends. You may be surprised at how pleased they are to lend a helping hand.
And finally, be mindful. Make time for yourself every morning, every day, and consider learning to meditate as a way to reduce stress. Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious, painful disease. To lessen the stress of coping, stop and just breathe now and then.