What causes muscle stiffness? 15 possible conditions
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Muscle stiffness is when your muscles feel tight and contracted, rather than relaxed, when they’re at rest. Muscle stiffness may limit your range of motion.
Muscles may feel stiff after exercise, repetitive motion, or prolonged periods of inactivity. Mild muscle stiffness and muscle aches and pains are fairly common and can be easily treated. Home treatments include application of heat and cold, along with rest and gentle massage.
You can help prevent muscle stiffness with simple stretching exercises and regular physical activity.
Severe muscle stiffness is also known as muscle spasticity. This can interfere with movements, including walking and speaking. Chronic muscle stiffness can be a symptom of a variety of conditions, including fibromyalgia and lupus.
If muscle stiffness lasts for more than three days or is accompanied by other symptoms, like fever or shortness of breath, seek prompt medical attention.
Sometimes muscles feel stiff after periods of vigorous use or overuse syndromes. In these cases, you usually become aware of stiffness shortly after activity. Muscles can also feel stiff after periods of inactivity. This can happen when you get out of bed in the morning or rise from a seated position. Also among the more common causes for muscle stiffness are sprains and strains, injury, or exposure to extreme heat or cold.
Muscle stiffness can be symptomatic of a wide variety of medical conditions, including:
- acute HIV infection
- black widow spider bite
- brown recluse spider bite
- cerebral palsy
- generalized anxiety disorder
- Huntington’s disease
- infectious mononucleosis
- Legionnaire’s disease
- Lyme disease
- multiple sclerosis
- muscular dystrophies
- Parkinson’s disease
- polymyalgia rheumatica
Mild muscle stiffness is no cause for alarm. However, you should call your doctor if:
- muscle stiffness lasts more than three days
- you have severe, unexplained pain
- the area that feels stiff has swelling, tenderness, or redness
- you have evidence of a tick bite or rash
- you have poor circulation where your muscles are stiff
- you notice a deformity of the area
- muscle stiffness occurred after beginning new medication or adjusting doses of medications, especially statins
Seek immediate medical attention if your muscle stiffness is accompanied by:
- shortness of breath
- difficulty swallowing
- muscle weakness
- partial or full paralysis
- high fever
- stiff neck
- sudden weight gain or water retention
- you have less urine than usual
Be prepared to tell your doctor about your medical history and describe all your symptoms. List your prescription and over-the counter medications and supplements.
Based on the results of a physical examination, diagnostic testing may include complete blood count and other blood tests.
For minor muscle stiffness, or muscle stiffness after exercise, a few simple home remedies may help, including:
- apply ice during the first 24 to 72 hours after injury or overuse
- apply heat after the first 72 hours
- massage therapy
- gentle stretching prior to activity
- regular exercise to improve circulation and reduce inflammation
- maintain proper posture
- use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain
If these measures aren't working, your doctor may prescribe medication or physical therapy. Any underlying conditions causing muscle stiffness must also be addressed.
You can decrease the incidence of muscle stiffness by:
- performing gentle stretches before physical activity
- allowing a cool-down period after exercise
- exercising regularly
- starting slowly and building over time when beginning a new exercise program
- avoiding high-impact sports and activities
- getting up and stretching periodically throughout the day if you have a sedentary job
- paying attention to your sitting and standing posture
- investing in ergonomic furniture
- Muscle aches. (2011, May 1). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003178.htm
- Muscle cramps. (2012, August 14). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 20, 2013 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003193.htm
- Muscle pain. (2010, September 11). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved March 20, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/muscle-pain/MY00113
- Rhabdomyolysis. (2011, September 19). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 20, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001505/
- Spasticity. (2011, February 5). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003297.htm
- Spider Bites. (2000). California Poison Control System. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from http://www.calpoison.com/public/spiders.html
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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