What Is Joint Locking?

You may have heard from a chiropractor or physio that a joint in your body has ‘locked’. So what does this mean?

It might sound a bit overwhelming, but all this refers to is when you’re unable to extend or fully flex a joint in the spine or elsewhere. It can be unpleasant and surprising, as it’s usually accompanied by pain. Luckily, this condition is easily treated.

What causes joint locking?

Joint locking can occur anywhere in the body. ‘True locking’ happens when the joint gets physically stuck and is caused by a foreign object blocking free movement, such as cartilage or bone spurs. However, ‘pseudo locking’ is much more common. Here, muscle spasms make it more difficult to fully extend the affected joint. This most often occurs after an injury or a tendon tear. This means that bending or straightening of the joint is painful, but it is not physically incapable of moving, as in the case of ‘true locking’. 

Joint locking is common in people with osteoarthritis, the symptoms of which are inflammation and breakdown of flexibility in the joints. Another culprit, although more unusually, is gout, another form of arthritis that causes pain, warmth and swelling in joints. 

Most often, joint locking has no obvious cause and can be resolved with adjustments and stretching. Here at Sundial we use manual adjustments or an instrument to unlock the seized joints.

Chiropractor using an IQ machine to release a locked joint.

So what can be done? 

The treatment of a locked joint depends on its severity and why it became locked in the first place. If the problem is caused by a bone spur preventing full extension of the joint, exercise can help but surgery is the last resort. Most often, resting the affected joint with a cold compress and avoiding strenuous exercise for a few days will be enough to resolve it. However, no matter the cause or severity of a locked joint, it’s important not to keep the affected area so inactive that muscles start to lose their strength and flexibility even more. 

While resting, try very gentle stretching of the affected area, no matter how minimal. This will not only stop the joint from becoming more immobile, but will promote blood circulation in the inflamed area, which will help it to heal faster. 

If the joint locking is acute – meaning short-lived and severe in pain – it’s worth taking ibuprofen to deal with your discomfort. However, if you deal with joint locking on a regular basis, you may need an examination or adjustment from a chiropractor or physio. It’s important not to rely on painkillers day-to-day, as not only can they become addictive but can also lose their efficacy when treating pain. 

If you’d like to know more about how you can resolve a locked joint, book an appointment today.