Muscle stiffness, also known as muscle tension, rigor, or stiffness, is one of the most common causes of muscle pain. It is characterized by the inability of the muscles to relax normally. The condition can affect any of the muscles in the body, causing a sharp pain that makes movement difficult.
It is usually not a cause for concern and can be treated with home remedies and stretching.
Muscle stiffness refers to a sensation of muscle tightness, which often causes pain and makes it challenging to move. Muscle stiffness may occur after overuse of a particular muscle, or it may indicate an underlying condition.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or a nine to fiver: nearly everyone has experienced muscle stiffness at some point in their lives. Whether it hits you in the morning the day after a serious workout or after a long day at the office, it can leave you with debilitating pain and discomfort that’s slow to fade.
Fortunately, muscle stiffness can be managed or even avoided altogether with a few preventative measures. We’ll outline some steps you can take to keep your muscles relaxed throughout the day.
There are three types of muscle: skeletal, cardiac, and smooth. Muscle stiffness primarily affects skeletal muscle, which is a voluntarily-controlled type of muscle that enables humans to move and perform daily activities. In general, these actions are possible after a signal from the nervous system stimulates contraction of the skeletal muscle, resulting in movement. If any problems interfere with the communication between the nervous system and the muscle cells, the muscles may remain contracted and result in stiffness.
In this article, we look at some causes of muscle stiffness, as well as home remedies and when to see a doctor.
What Is Muscle Stiffness?
Muscle stiffness is when your muscles feel tight and you find it more difficult to move than you usually do, especially after rest. You may also have muscle pains, cramping, and discomfort. This is different from muscle rigidity and spasticity. With these two symptoms, your muscles stay stiff even when you’re not moving. Muscle stiffness usually goes away on its own. You may find relief with regular exercise and stretching. In some cases, muscle stiffness can be a sign of something more serious, especially if there are other symptoms present. Muscles stiffness can also be accompanied by pain, cramping, and discomfort. It is usually not a cause for concern and can be treated with home remedies and stretching.
What Causes Muscle Stiffness?
Muscle stiffness most commonly arises after the overuse of skeletal muscles, which tends to happen after a long period of minimal motion (e.g., after extended bed rest) or after engaging in new exercises. These actions can cause temporary damage to the muscle cells, leading to stiffness. Muscle stiffness from overuse of the muscles occurs most frequently among people who do not exercise often.
Electrolyte imbalances may also cause muscle stiffness, especially after exercise. Electrolytes (e.g., sodium, potassium, etc.) are important minerals in the body that play a role in conducting nerve impulses and contracting muscles, among other functions. When a person exercises, electrolytes are lost with water (e.g., sweat), making it more difficult for the nervous system to facilitate muscle movement.
Muscle stiffness can also develop due to an underlying myopathy, or a disease of the muscles, which can result from metabolic, inflammatory, endocrine, infectious, or medication-related causes. Metabolic disorders, such as mitochondrial disease and McArdle’s disease, disrupt the balance of nutrients and energy in the body. Inflammatory conditions, such as polymyalgia rheumatica, are characterized by increased inflammation in the body due to an overreaction by the body’s immune system. Endocrine disorders, like hypothyroidism and acromegaly, are caused by hormone imbalances in the body.
Disruptions in metabolic processes, the immune system, and hormone levels can all produce muscle stiffness. Infections, such as the flu, COVID-19, and meningitis, are also often associated with muscle stiffness. Finally, muscle stiffness can occur as a side effect of certain medications, such as statins, which are prescribed to treat high cholesterol, or anesthetics, which are commonly given during surgery.
Since muscle movement depends on communication between the nervous system and the muscles, muscle stiffness can also arise from issues with the nerves and muscles (i.e., neuromuscular disorders) or problems affecting only the nerves (i.e., neurologic disorders). Stiff-person syndrome, a rare cause of muscle stiffness, is a type of neuromuscular disorder in which motor neurons can cause involuntary muscle spasms. Other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, Myasthenia gravis, and Lambert Eaton syndrome, are characterized by progressively worsening muscle stiffness, or rigidity. Individuals with a history of stroke may also experience muscle stiffness.
Sprains and Strains
The most common cause of muscle stiffness is a sprain or strain, which can affect both the muscles and ligaments.
A strain is when the muscle fibers are stretched or torn. Strains are particularly common in the legs and lower back.
A sprain is when the ligaments have been stretched, twisted, or torn. The ligaments are the bands of tissue around the joints that connect the bones together.
Common areas prone to sprains include:
Other symptoms associated with sprains and strains include:
Bites or Stings
Insect bites and stings can sometimes cause muscle stiffness. Bites or stings may also cause a red, swollen lump on the skin, which can be itchy and painful.
Bugs that commonly bite or sting and may cause muscle stiffness include:
Symptoms of a bite or sting will usually improve within a few days, but some people have allergic reactions that may require medical attention.
Stiffness after an insect bite can also be associated with more serious conditions, such as Lyme disease, malaria, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These conditions will also cause other symptoms, such as fever and malaise.
Some infections cause muscle stiffness in addition to other symptoms. These infections include:
- tetanus, a bacterial infection usually associated with dirt or soil
- meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord
- Legionnaires’ disease
- mononucleosis or mono
- influenza or the flu
If you’re experiencing muscle stiffness there are several symptoms you shouldn’t ignore. If the pain or soreness doesn’t subside within a couple of days, or if it’s accompanied by a fever, headache, chest pain, swelling, bruising, or extreme weakness, they could all be signs that you may have an underlying medical condition. So seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
Also note if the discomfort started after you began taking new medications and let your doctor know.
Muscle stiffness is generally characterized by soreness and difficulty moving, sometimes accompanied by cramps, pain, or weakness. Most often, muscle stiffness will occur in the morning and last for less than 30 minutes after waking up or for a couple of days after engaging in new or more challenging exercise. Other signs and symptoms accompanying muscle stiffness are typically dependent upon the specific causes and location of the stiffness. Muscle stiffness may interfere with walking (i.e., gait), causing a slower, more difficult, and often painful gait. If muscle spasms accompany the stiffness, the spasms may be triggered by intense emotions, loud noises, or sudden movements.
In cases of neuromuscular disorder, muscle stiffness may also be accompanied by curvature of the lower spine (i.e., lumbar hyperlordosis) and nervous system problems, such as difficulty balancing, numbness or tingling, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing, or difficulty breathing.
Muscle stiffness is relatively common, but some people are more prone to it than others. This problem is particularly prevalent in infants, young children, and older adults above the age of 65 years. The following factors can put anyone at an increased risk of developing muscle stiffness and cramps:
Over weight: Being overweight or obese increases stress on your knee joints, even during ordinary activities such as walking or going up and down stairs. It also puts you at increased risk of osteoarthritis by accelerating the breakdown of joint cartilage
Excessive alcohol consumption: High levels of alcohol consumption have also been believed to be the key risk factor for contribution to muscle stiffness.
Hypothyroidism: Certain medical conditions like that are of Hypothyroidism have been believed to be one of the contributing factor for causing muscle stiffness among elders.
To diagnose muscle stiffness, your doctor will first request your medical history and perform a physical exam. They can also perform lab tests to look for muscle damage and rule out any possible underlying conditions that may cause muscle stiffness.
These tests can include:
- Blood tests, which can help your doctor detect muscle damage and certain autoimmune disorders that can cause stiffness.
- Magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography, which can reveal any bone abnormalities that may cause pinched nerves.
- An electromyogram, which can help your doctor assess how well your muscles and nerves are working.
- An ultrasound, which can help your doctor find tears and swelling in the muscle fibers.
Once your doctor determines the cause of your muscle stiffness, they’ll be able to recommend a treatment.
Your specific treatment will vary depending on the cause. Your doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, to lessen pain and discomfort.
You may be able to treat muscle stiffness at home with rest, massage, and application of heat or cold.
Heat may work better for muscle tightness. Cold may work better for swelling and inflammation. Options include hot and cold packs, heating pads, and heat therapy patches.
Apply heat or cold to the affected area for no more than 20 minutes. Let the area rest for 20 minutes before reapplying either option. If you aren’t sure about whether to use heat or cold, call your doctor for instructions.
Stretching is important for keeping muscles flexible and preventing stiffness. To decrease muscle stiffness, improve circulation, and reduce inflammation, try the following:
- make time for regular exercise
- stretch before and after exercise
- take warm baths
- massage sore areas
Instructions on how to stretch specific muscle groups include:
Thighs: Do quad stretches by standing up straight, bending one leg at the knee, and raising your foot toward your back. You can hold your foot or ankle with your hand for 10 to 15 seconds, then switch sides.
When to visit a Doctor?
Most cases of muscle stiffness clear up on their own or with the help of home remedies, but prolonged or frequent stiffness can sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition.
If someone experiences muscle stiffness along with additional symptoms, such as fever, pain, dark urine, or swelling, they should speak to a doctor.
If a person experiences stiffness after an insect bite or sting, they should speak to a medical professional, especially if they have allergy symptoms.
People should always talk to a doctor about the bothersome side effects of the medications they are taking, including muscle stiffness.
A person must inform the doctor about all the symptoms they have, not just muscle stiffness, to get an accurate diagnosis.
There are also some simple changes people can make to their lifestyle to prevent getting muscle stiffness. These include:
- exercising regularly
- warming up and down before and after exercise
- stretching the muscles
- wearing the correct footwear during exercise
- wearing warm clothing in cold weather
- practicing good posture
- ensuring furniture at home and work gives comfort and support
- avoiding long periods of inactivity
Staying hydrated and eating a varied, nutritious diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and can also help reduce the chance of muscle stiffness.
To stay hydrated, a person should drink plain water every day, try herbal teas, or add fruit slices to sparkling water.
Research has shownTrusted Source a link between muscle stiffness and dehydration, so a person should take breaks and stay hydrated while exercising.