If you’ve had morning joint stiffness that improves once you’ve warmed up and started moving, you’ve experienced the “gelling phenomenon.”
The “gelling phenomenon” or “gelling effect” is a colloquial description some people use to describe how joints become stiff after a period of inactivity, such as when you’re asleep or sitting for a long time.
The analogy goes like this: When the gelatin mixture in Jell-O is warm, it’s fluid. But as it cools, it becomes more and more stiff as it sets.
Another term people often use to describe a similar phenomenon is stiffness — or morning stiffness if it happens when you first get up.
Morning stiffness is an overlapping and more common term people use to describe how their joints feel when they get up. It’s incredibly common in people with inflammatory arthritis, including psoriatic arthritis (PsA).
Moving the joints gently and getting active helps relieve morning stiffness, warming up the stiff joints and making them feel more fluid.
The gelling phenomenon happens when your joints haven’t moved for a long period, like when you’re sleeping, riding in a car, or sitting at a desk for a long time.
During this time, fluid seeps out of blood vessels in your joints and “waterlogs” the joint cartilage, one expert explains.
In addition to that increased fluid, your joints may already be inflamed with a flare.
According to experts, you’ll typically experience the gelling phenomenon after a long period of inactivity, but it can also happen after more prolonged exercise, like a very long walk.
If you have psoriatic arthritis, you might experience morning stiffness for 30–60 minutes, or even hours longer. Many people with PsA also say they feel fatigue and general malaise during this time.
It disappears much faster in people with other conditions. For example, it tends to disappear within 5–10 minutes in people with osteoarthritis.
Speaking with a healthcare professional — preferably the rheumatologist who treats your PsA — is a good place to start.
Medications for PsA may help reduce joint stiffness, also known as the gelling phenomenon. They’ll also help stop joint inflammation and damage, which helps reduce pain.
When you experience the gelling phenomenon, moving the joint can help ease the stiffness. Ironically, this might hurt most, so take it slow.
Walking, tai chi, yoga, swimming, or stretching are all joint-friendly options that can help you improve your strength and range of motion.
If it’s too painful to get active first thing in the morning, exercising later in the day can still help.
Experts also recommend gently heating your affected joints by taking a bath or shower or applying a heat pack.
Instead of a heat pack, you can try a heated mattress pad, heated gloves (for stiffness in your hands), or sleeping with an electric blanket, depending on the location of the stiffness.
Some people also use topical capsaicin (hot pepper) cream on their joints to warm them up.
Taking steps to lower your inflammation in general can help, too. This includes:
The gelling phenomenon is a colloquial term for joint stiffness that feels like your joint is made of cold gel.
You can treat it by heating the joint gently and slowly and safely moving it to improve strength and range of motion.
Medically reviewed on September 12, 2023
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