A muscle contracture, or contracture deformity, is the result of stiffness or constriction in the connective tissues of your body. This can occur in:

  • your muscles
  • tendons
  • ligaments
  • skin

You can also experience a contracture deformity in your joint capsules. This is the dense, fibrous connective tissue that stabilizes the joint — and adjoining bones — at the deepest, most internal level.

Contracture deformity restricts normal movement. It develops when your usually pliable connective tissues become less flexible. This means that your range of motion will be limited. You may have difficulty:

  • moving your hands
  • stretching your legs
  • straightening your fingers
  • extending another part of your body

Contractures can occur in different parts of your body, such as:

  • Muscles. A muscle contracture involves the shortening and tightening of the muscles.
  • Joints. If there’s contracture in the joint capsule where two or more bones connect, you’ll experience limited range of motion in that area of your body.
  • Skin. Skin may contract where it’s been scarred from an injury, burn, or past surgery. This will limit your ability to move that part of your body.

The main symptom of contracture deformity is reduced ability to move an area of your body. You might also have pain, depending on the location and cause of the problem.

The most common causes of contracture are inactivity and scarring from an injury or burn. People who have other conditions that keep them from moving around are also at higher risk for contracture deformity.

For example, people with severe osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often develop contractures. Since they aren’t moving their muscles and joints through their normal range of motion, these tissues are prime candidates for tightening.

For example, joint contractures are common in patients discharged from intensive care units or after long hospital stays. It’s also very common in people who have suffered a stroke and resulting paralysis.

Other causes include diseases that are inherited or that develop in early childhood, such as:

If you get burned or injured, seek immediate medical assistance. Call your healthcare provider if your ability to move the affected part of your body is suddenly limited.

Seek treatment for chronic diseases and underlying conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment can help decrease or prevent symptoms.

Medical exam

Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask about your medical history. Be prepared to explain your symptoms. Your healthcare provider will probably ask you about:

  • the specific location of your problem
  • the intensity of your symptoms
  • how much movement you still have
  • how long your movement of that area has been restricted

Your healthcare provider may order X-rays or other tests to diagnose your condition.

Physical therapy/occupational therapy

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are two of the most common treatments for contractures. They help to increase your range of motion and strengthen your muscles.

Physical therapy sessions require regular attendance for best results. Your physical therapist and occupational therapist can show you exercises to do at home. They can also provide hands-on therapy to improve your mobility.

Devices

You may need to wear a cast or a splint to help stretch the tissues near the problem area. A continuous passive motion (CPM) machine may be used to keep moving the affected part of your body.

Medication

Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to reduce inflammation and pain. For people with cerebral palsy, botulinum toxin (Botox) is sometimes injected into muscles to reduce tension and minimize spasms.

Surgery

Surgery may be needed to lengthen muscles or repair ligaments, tendons, or bones damaged in an accident.

For example, your surgeon may repair a ligament in your knee, with the hope that you’ll regain full range of motion in the long term. When a joint is replaced because of arthritis, the contractures are released.

Delaying or forgoing treatment may make it difficult or impossible for you to regain your range of motion. Stiff muscles, joints, and skin can interfere with performing everyday tasks at home and at work.

For people with diseases such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis continual medical care is recommended to maximize available treatment options and their benefits.

If you’ve been in the hospital for a long period or have been injured, it’s especially important to tell your healthcare provider about any stiffness or loss of movement you have.

Regular exercise and an active lifestyle can help prevent muscle and joint stiffness.

Ask your healthcare provider, occupational therapist, or physical therapist about the best exercise program for you. When playing sports, or lifting heavy objects, use caution to prevent injuries.

If you’re injured, see healthcare provider right away. Follow their treatment recommendations to help prevent contracture.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and devices that passively move your joints can also help prevent problem areas from stiffening.