Waking Up Stiff? How ‘Morning Gel’ Can Affect Your Joints + Tips for Relief

Osteoarthritis vs. rheumatologic conditions
Waking Up Stiff? How 'Morning Gel' Can Affect Your Joints + Tips for Relief

When you hear the term, “morning gel,” what comes to mind? Hair styling aids? Eye cream?

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Actually, medical experts use this term to describe joint stiffness from lack of movement, whether after a night’s sleep or binge-watching your favorite show.

According to Patricia Paczos, PA-C, “gel” is shorthand for the word, “gelatin.” Just as gelatin hardens as it sits, becoming the wobbly, brightly-colored dessert of summer picnics, so too do our joints sometimes stiffen up overnight from lack of movement.

What’s causing your morning gel?

There are various possible causes for morning gel, including osteoarthritis (the common arthritis people many experience with age) and inflammatory arthritic conditions that involve problems of an overactive immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

Determining the cause of morning gel is important for diagnosis and treatment, particularly when it comes to autoimmune conditions because they require more specialized care.

“When stiffness is prolonged — lasting for one hour or more — we suspect an autoimmune disorder. Usually, when it comes to the more common issue of osteoarthritis, the stiffness eases up more readily,” Dr. Paczos says.

She adds, “When we’re talking about a younger person with morning gel, that’s another signal that it’s potentially an autoimmune disorder that needs a rheumatologist’s attention.”

How is severe osteoarthritis diagnosed?

If someone has severe osteoarthritis, this can make diagnosing it a little more complicated. In these cases, the morning gel can last longer even if they don’t have an autoimmune disorder.

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“This can occur when a person has little or no cartilage to offer cushion in the joint,” Dr. Paczos says. “It tends to become more problematic as people age. The effects can also be accelerated by injuries, such as years of playing football.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that doctors can do to repair such damage, but you can maintain good lifestyle habits that help with symptoms.

Also, some people may be more or less predisposed to osteoarthritis based on their genetics. “Your genetics can influence how bad osteoarthritis gets and how early it starts,” Dr. Paczos says.

If morning gel is severe and there’s a question about whether it is rooted in an autoimmune issue, doctors make look at the following:

  • Blood tests. Blood can show signs of inflammation.
  • Appearance of the joint itself. Distribution and location of arthritis on the joint.
  • Tests of fluid removed from the joint. Doctors test this for inflammatory cells.

How does a rheumatologist treat autoimmune problems?

If you get morning gel for more than an hour at a time, see a rheumatologist.

They’ll work with you to reduce the damage if you do have an autoimmune disorder. This may include:

  • Drug treatment. Your doctor may prescribe medications to calm down inflammation, such as Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDS). (These drugs don’t work for osteoarthritis.)
  • Physical therapy. Specific exercises can sometimes help with pain and stiffness.
  • Healthy lifestyle. It’s especially important to eat well, exercise, manage your weight, and focus on getting enough sleep.
  • Reduce stress. Stress makes a lot of medical problems worse, and it plays an important role with rheumatologic conditions, according to Dr. Paczos.

When can morning gel be mistaken for something else?

Sometimes, people mistake other problems for morning gel, including:

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  • Stiffness from a new, vigorous exercise routine. “This actually involves the muscles rather than the joints,” Dr. Paczos says.
  • Sluggishness in the morning. This can be related to many other problems, such as thyroid issues, fibromyalgia, obesity and/or a sedentary lifestyle.

What can you do to prevent and relieve morning gel?

For people with osteoarthritis, over-the-counter pain medicines can help. But the best prevention and remedy are lifestyle changes, Dr. Paczos says.

“It is so important to take care of your health every day, which will prevent and ease problems in your joints.”

She says the formula is simple and well known, but takes commitment to do regularly: Watch your weight, exercise, eat right and get proper rest.

“Do all you can to keep your weight in check and exercise 30 minutes/day several days a week. Walk, bike or swim if you like. Also, really pay attention to your diet and sleep habits.”

She tells patients, “You can start small and slowly build up to create good habits.” Another tip: Try writing down your goals. Remember that goals can change as you achieve them over time. Just by making a regular effort to show up and do your best each day will make you stronger and healthier.

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