Your questions about joint stiffness answered

Feb 17, 2020
Our resident health expert offers some helpful advice for those living with pain. Source: Getty.

Our bodies are made up of nerves, bones, muscles, joints and ligaments. Bones are the strongest of the lot. The joints allow for this skeletal system to move, the ligaments provide guidance to movement, the muscles allow for the power, and the nerves are the control centre. Without them, everything else does not function well.

Traditionally we thought that joint stiffness occurred because one of the following happened:

  • Wear and tear to the skeletal system
  • Overlying muscles became weak mainly due to inactivity, leading to joint wear and tear, which then lead to joint stiffness
  • Trauma, like car accidents, caused ligaments to sprain or rupture, which then lead to joint wear and tear, therefore leading to joint stiffness.

However, one of the latest findings on musculoskeletal health is that our neural system (the nerves helping to control the bones, muscles, joints and ligaments) can be compromised. How can nerves be compromised? Nerves create the pathway for the messages from the brain and spinal cord to be delivered to the bones, muscles, joints and ligaments. Funnily enough, nerves themselves are prone to having problems. They can be affected with slow repetitive movements (for example, having poor posture in front of the computer, watching television) or fast movements (missing a step or slipping). When either of these occur the nerves tend to tighten up.

Nerves are also very sensitive structures. Have you ever hit your funny bone? This is your ulnar nerve passing by your elbow. You would have noticed how your fingers went numb, you experienced pain radiating down the arm, followed by pins and needles and a heaviness from your elbow to your fingers, especially the pinky and part of the ring finger.

So, how do you prevent this?

We start by understanding how to classify your joint stiffness. If you’re in the red zone, you’re in pain. The joint stiffness and tightness disallows you from moving and doing the things you love.

If you’re in the yellow zone, joints are tight and stiff, and it takes a little while to get going. And when you’re in the green zone you can do all the things you love and you can move well.

However, in today’s world not many people are in the green zone — only about 5 per cent of the population are. Meanwhile, about 10 to 15 per cent are in the red zone, and about 80 to 85 per cent of people are in the yellow zone.

What should you do?

If you’re in the red zone, you need to be assessed by a physiotherapist to work out why your pain levels are so high. However, if you’re in the yellow zone, it’s really important to keep mobile. Things like hydrotherapy, yoga, tai chi and Pilates are good for this zone. Other exercises include:

  • Neural flossing lower limb: Improves mobility and reduces certain types of pain in the lower limb
  • Neural flossing upper limb: Reduces symptoms in the upper limbs such as pins and needles, pain or adverse neural tension
  • Hip pendulum leg swings: Shakes out and loosens stiff leg and hip muscles.

A quick search of the internet, particularly YouTube, will bring up plenty of demonstrations of how to do these exercises. Finally, if you’re in the green zone, it’s all about maintaining what you’ve got by keeping up with regular activity, exercises and hobbies. Speak to you GP or physiotherapist before starting a new exercise program.

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