Do you have achy joints? – Thixotrophy explained

Do you have achy joints? Is it worse in the morning when you get out of bed or when you get up from sitting still for over an hour? This can all be explained with a paint pot!

Thixotrophy is a process that occurs within human soft tissue. The ‘Thixotrophic Effect’ describes a fluid that when it is still for a length of time, it becomes viscous and ‘sticky’. When the substance is moved it becomes less viscous and more fluid, just like a pot of paint that needs stirring before you can paint.

If we have a good night sleep we often feel a stiffness in our joints that resolves quickly with movement and stretches. If you have achy joints you may have some inflammatory chemicals in the joints. Inflammation is also thixotrophic, the difference being inflammation stimulates a pain response, therefore, you feel it more.

Just like a pot of paint, if you stay still the inflammatory molecules start sticking together and if you do not move for a period of time it can hurt when you suddenly move again. It is important to realise this is a normal process of biology and is not necessarily a serious problem with your joints. Anyone with a joint replacement will tell you during the recovery period if they sit still for too long it is initially stiff and/or painful until they get going.

Knowledge is power

Knowing this may be helpful if you experience this type of pain but how do you improve the situation yourself? Stir the paint pot before you need to get up! If movement improves the fluidity of the substances in your joints and muscles then you can flex and extend the joint before doing the activity.

For example, if your hip or knee is the problem especially getting out of bed in the morning you may find it beneficial to bend and straighten your leg several times before you attempt to get up.

Now think of the paint pot again! If you stir it once or twice does it make a lot of difference to the fluidity of the paint? Not really, so you will need to move the joint enough times to make it feel ‘looser’. If you move the stick to the bottom of the paint pot, is it difficult to stir all the thick paint at the same time? How can you make it easier? The same principles apply to your joint movement. Start with smaller movements and gradually get further until the viscosity reduces and you joint feels looser. You may find that spending some time moving your painful joint before getting up makes a big difference to your pain.

Reducing the thixotrophic properties of the substances in your joints doesn’t remove the painful inflammation necessarily although I am often told it reduces the intensity of the pain and makes initiating movement much more bearable. It has been suggested however that the more fluid the molecules are in your joints the easier they are to diffuse into the blood stream to be digested by the body. Thixotrophy may play a part in the management of joint pain.

Final thoughts

Please be aware there are lots of reasons joints can become painful and seeking specialist advice is advisable. If you are uncertain about the correct movements to help the thixotrophic effect then consult a physiotherapist.

Furthermore, painful joints often come hand in hand with muscle weakness. A physiotherapist would be able to guide you through a structured approach to managing your pain and weakness with a mix of exercises and manual therapy if indicated.

Remember ‘stir that paint pot!’

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