What causes muscle stiffness? 15 possible conditions

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Muscle Stiffness Overview

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.

Causes of Muscle Stiffness

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
  • adrenoleukodystrophy
  • black widow spider bite
  • brown recluse spider bite
  • cerebral palsy
  • coccidiomyocosis
  • dermatomyositis
  • fibromyalgia
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • Huntington’s disease
  • infectious mononucleosis
  • influenza
  • Legionnaire’s disease
  • lupus
  • Lyme disease
  • multiple sclerosis
  • muscular dystrophies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • polio
  • polymyalgia rheumatica
  • post-anesthesia
  • rhabdomyolysis

Diagnosing Muscle Stiffness

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
  • vomiting
  • 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.

Treatment for Muscle Stiffness

For minor muscle stiffness, or muscle stiffness after exercise, a few simple home remedies may help, including:

  • rest
  • apply ice during the first 24 to 72 hours after injury or overuse
  • apply heat after the first 72 hours
  • massage therapy
  • yoga
  • meditation
  • 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.

Preventing Muscle Stiffness

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 

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Muscular Dystrophies

Muscular dystrophies are a group of diseases that cause damage and weakness to muscles over time. This damage and weakness is caused by the lack of a protein called dystrophin, which is necessary for normal muscl...

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Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

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Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a virus that attacks the body's nervous system. It is most likely to be contracted by children under five years old.

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Infectious Mononucleosis

Infectious mononucleosis, or "mono," is a group of symptoms caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. One potential symptom is a pink rash that looks like the measles.

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Polymyalgia Rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica is an inflammatory disorder that causes pain and stiffness in various parts of the body, including the shoulders, neck, arms, thighs, and hips. The cause of this disorder is unknown.

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Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a hereditary condition in which the brain's nerve cells gradually break down. This affects physical movements, emotions, and cognitive abilities. There is no cure, but there are ways to cope wit...

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Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder. It first presents with problems of movement. Smooth and coordinated muscle movements of the body are made possible by a substance in the brain calle...

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Epilepsy Overview

The types of epilepsy include Juvenile Myoclonic, Benign Rolandic, Reflex, West Syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, Landau-Kleffner and Rasmussen's Encephalitis Epilepsy.

Read more »


Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, worry uncontrollably about common occurrences and situations. The condition may also be called chronic anxiety neurosis.GAD is different than normal feeling...

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Legionnaires' Disease

Legionnaires' disease is a serious type of lung infection, or pneumonia, caused by bacteria. Fever, chills, cough, and head and muscle aches are common symptoms.

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Rhabdomyolysis is breakdown of muscle fibers. Muscle breakdown causes the release of myoglobin into the bloodstream. Myoglobin can cause kidney damage. Symptoms include dark urine, muscle weakness, and fatigue. Abou...

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Krabbe Disease

Krabbe disease is a rare and usually deadly disorder of the nervous system. It is an inherited genetic disease, which means that it is passed down in families. People with Krabbe disease are not able to create enough o...

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Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis)

Coccidioidomycosis-also called valley fever-is a fungal infection that starts in the lungs, and in rare cases spreads to the rest of the body. According to the California Department of Health, approximately 150,00...

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Encephalopathy is a general term describing a disease that affects the function or structure of your brain. There are many types of encephalopathy and brain disease. Some types are permanent and some are temporary. Som...

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Dermatomyositis is a rare inflammatory disease. It is an inflammatory myopathy, a condition that occurs when muscles become inflamed. It is one of only three known inflammatory myopathies. The most common symptom i...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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