The Best Morning Stretches to Fix Joint Pain (from a Physical Therapist)

April 4, 2024

There are few things are worse than having constant pain in your neck, back, or joints in the morning. Even routine tasks, such as getting out of bed or putting on your shoes, can be difficult if you struggle with morning aches and pains.

Doctor of Physical Therapy Dr. Chad Walding shares three simple and effective stretches that can start your day off with more energy and less pain. The added bonus? It only takes a couple of minutes.

The Science Behind Morning Joint Pain

Have you ever wondered why your joints are stiff in the morning? There are a few reasons you may be feeling this.

Stiffening of Synovial Fluid

Just like a squeaky door hinge needs oil, your joints need lubrication to operate smoothly. Your body produces a natural lubricant known as synovial fluid. This viscous fluid fills where your bones meet and allows for smooth movement within your knees, elbows, and other joints (1).

A diagram of a synovial joint with labels

The more you move around, the more this fluid circulates in your joints to keep everything gliding; hence my favorite phrase, “motion is lotion”. But when you rest, that lubricant sits and thickens. This phenomenon is sometimes called “morning gel” in reference to how synovial fluid stiffens like gelatin when allowed to rest (2). 

But as you get older, that pain and stiffness may become more common and linger a little longer, given decreases in your synovial fluid.

Declining Collagen Levels

Collagen is the glue that holds your body together. It provides structure and support to all of your connective tissues, including your skin, bones, ligaments, tendons, and the cartilage that protects your joints. In fact, collagen makes up about 60% of the dry weight of cartilage (3).

Starting around your mid-to-late 20s, your natural collagen production begins to decline. And by the age of 40, you’re losing about 1% of your collagen per year (4). By 60 years old, you’ve lost roughly 50% of the collagen you were born with.

This steep decline in collagen is most likely correlated to many of the joint pains you may face: joint stiffness, popping and cracking, pain or discomfort, decreased shock absorption, reduced joint stability, limited range of motion, swelling and inflammation, impaired healing of joint tissue, increased risk of injury, and longer recovery times.

A woman with a container of NativePath Joint Health Collagen on her bent knee.

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A Serious Underlying Cause of Morning Joint Pain

It’s easy to blame aging, an old mattress, or a poor night’s sleep when you wake up feeling stiff and achy. It's true that those things can make you feel stiff in the morning. 

But if that joint stiffness is frequent and prolonged, it may signal a more serious issue, arthritis

There are several different types of arthritis, and they can affect your morning joint pain differently:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA): the most common type of arthritis people may experience with age. In fact, a whopping 24% of adults in the US have some form of it (5). OA is characterized by the disintegration of cartilage from prolonged use or injury. 
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): an autoimmune disease where your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body—most commonly your joints—causing inflammation, pain, swelling, and stiffness (6, 7).
  • Psoriatic Arthritis (PsA): a form of arthritis that’s linked to psoriasis—a chronic skin condition. The most common symptoms are joint pain and stiffness, skin rashes, and changes in your fingernails and toenails (8).
  • Ankylosing Spondylitis: a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in the joints and ligaments of the spine and can cause stiffness. In severe cases, this may cause the vertebrae (bones in the spine) to fuse. When the vertebrae fuse, it can lead to a rigid and inflexible spine. It may also affect peripheral joints like the knees, ankles, and hips (9).

Why Should You Stretch in the Morning?

When you start your car in the morning, you don't just floor the gas and take off like a NASCAR driver. Instead, you gently pump the pedal, easing into motion.

You should treat your body the same way after a night's sleep. Instead of getting out of bed and immediately going about your day, it's best to take just a few minutes to loosen tight muscles and lubricate your joints with a little stretching.

Stretching in the morning can help your brain and body “wake up” after a night of rest by increasing blood flow and oxygen to your muscles. When we stretch, the muscles undergo a relaxation response, releasing chemicals that promote vasodilation—the widening of blood vessels (10). This results in increased blood flow, facilitating the delivery of oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to the muscles and organs (11).

There are several other possible benefits to stretching in the morning, including (12, 13, 14):

  • Enhances range of motion/flexibility: For many, morning muscle stiffness is related to a reduced range of motion—a measure of how much movement you can make around a joint—so regularly stretching can help maintain or improve your range of motion.
  • Improves posture: Stretching helps to maintain optimal muscle length and balance throughout the body, addressing what is often an underlying cause of poor posture.
  • Reduces muscle pain: When you stretch, you send oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to your muscles, which can help repair tissue and reduce muscle soreness.
  • Decreases risk of injury: By improving your flexibility and range of motion, stretching allows your joints to move more freely, which can reduce the risk of compensatory movements and related injuries.
  • Reduces stress: Stretching activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which can help induce relaxation and calmness.
  • Improves alertness: The brain requires a significant amount of oxygen to function optimally, so stretching ensures that more oxygen-rich blood reaches the brain, enhancing cognitive function and mental alertness.

3 Pain-Relieving Stretches to Start Your Day

Stretching doesn’t have to be a long or complicated process. Follow along with Dr. Walding as he leads you through these three simple morning stretches.

1. Lumbar Rotations

Start by laying flat on your back either on the floor or a bed. Relax your lower back, then bring your feet together and bend your knees. Rotate your knees side to side while keeping your back flat on the floor. Only rotate your knees as low as you can comfortably go without bringing your back off the floor. 

Practice syncing your breath with the movement. Inhale as your knees go up, and exhale as your knees rotate down. Nice and gentle motion while trying to breathe in and out through your nose.

Do 2-3 sets with 10-15 reps per side. 

2. Posture Correction

Start by sitting in a chair where your hips are just slightly above your knees. You're going to do a slight slouch, and then a slight overcorrect slouch. Inhale as your chest comes up, exhale as you slouch down. Imagine a string pulling your chest up, really arching as far as you can in one direction; just do a slight slouch in the other direction. 

Repeat this movement for 2-3 sets of 30-45 seconds.

3. Holding Up Heaven

Start by standing straight and interlacing your fingers over your head with your palms facing up and your elbows to the side of your ears. You’re going to inhale, and as you exhale, you’re going to gently lean to the side and push your arms slightly up and back, focusing on lengthening your spine and arms. Feel the stretch in arms, shoulders, and neck, upper back.

Do 2-3 sets with 10-15 reps per side.

A woman pouring a scoop of NativePath Joint Health Collagen into a mug.

Finally, a Collagen Uniquely Formulated for Your Joints

NativePath Joint Health contains FORTIGEL® and VERISOL®—two proprietary and clinically-proven Bioactive Collagen Peptides that promote strong joints and healthy skin, hair, nails, and bones.

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The Bottom Line

Stretching in the morning is a vital part of maintaining a strong and healthy body as you age. These three moves can help you start your day with less pain, improve your posture, reduce stress, and avoid injury. 

If you have any other strategies or stretches that have helped you with morning joint pain, we’d love to hear your tips in the comments below. Also, be sure to pass on this blog to your friends and family who might find this stretching routine beneficial.

Kat Kennedy
Article by

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is the Fitness and Nutrition Editor at NativePath. With a NASM CPT, NCSF CPT, and NCSF Sports Nutrition Certification, she has a passion for giving people the tools they need to feel healthy, strong, and confident.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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