What is muscle stiffness?
Muscle stiffness is when your muscles feel tight and you find it more difficult to move than usual, 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 from stiff muscles with regular exercise and stretching. But in some cases, muscle stiffness can be a sign of something more serious, especially if there are other symptoms present.
When to see a doctor
You should call your doctor if your muscle stiffness doesn’t go away or if you have other symptoms.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience muscle stiffness along with any of the following symptoms:
- fever, especially with stiffness in the neck
- extreme muscle weakness
- redness, pain, and swelling in the area you’re experiencing muscle stiffness
- muscle pain that began after taking a new medication
The presence of these symptoms could mean there is an underlying condition.
Possible underlying causes of muscle stiffness
Muscle stiffness typically occurs after exercise, hard physical work, or lifting weights. You may also feel stiffness after periods of inactivity, like when you get out of bed in the morning or get out of a chair after sitting for a long time.
Sprains and strains are the most common reasons for muscle stiffness. Sprains and strains from activity may also cause:
- limited movement
Other common conditions that may cause stiff muscles include:
- insect bite or sting
- injury from extreme heat or cold
- anesthesia or medication used for surgery
Some symptoms can be treated at home, but make an appointment with your doctor if your sprain or strain causes severe pain or if any additional symptoms don’t go away. Stiff muscles with other symptoms may mean an underlying condition.
Other possible causes of muscle stiffness
In addition to sprains and muscle strains, there are other conditions that cause muscle stiffness along with other symptoms:
Tetanus is a bacterial infection, usually from soil or dirt, with symptoms that include:
- difficulty swallowing
- belly pain or cramping
- increased blood pressure
- rapid heart rate
Meningitis is an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord with symptoms that include:
- stiff neck
- sudden high fever
- nausea and vomiting
HIV infection may produce additional symptoms that include:
- sore throat
Infections such as Legionnaires’ disease, polio, and valley fever often cause symptoms such as:
- chest pain
- sore throat
Infectious mononucleosis (mono), which is common in teenagers, may also cause symptoms such as:
- swollen lymph nodes
- swollen tonsils
Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) and polymyalgia rheumatica may also cause many similar symptoms, too. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that affects the eyes and skin. Polymyalgia rheumatica occurs mostly in older adults and can also cause tiredness, depression, and weight loss.
This list is just a summary of conditions that can cause muscle stiffness. Make sure you tell your doctor about all of your symptoms.
Diagnosing muscle stiffness
When you see your doctor about muscle stiffness, they’ll ask about your medical history and other symptoms you may be experiencing. They may also ask which symptom appeared first. This is to help determine the underlying cause.
They’ll also perform a physical examination to locate your pain or stiffness. And you may have to take blood or other lab tests, including X-rays and CT or MRI scans.
Treating muscle stiffness
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. But if you aren’t sure on when to use heat or cold, call your doctor or nurse 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.
Neck: Sit on a chair or on the floor, and try to relax your body as much as possible. Slowly roll your neck from one side down your chest to the other side. Repeat for several circulations.
Lower back: Lie flat on your back, bend your right knee, and move it across your body toward the left until it’s as close to the floor as is comfortable. Your shoulders and back should stay flat on the ground. Hold for about 10 to 20 seconds and switch sides
Preventing muscle stiffness
To help prevent muscle stiffness, try the following:
- Practice good posture.
- Make sure your furniture at home and at work provides comfort and support.
- Take regular breaks. To reduce stiffness, get up, walk around, and stretch every so often to keep the muscles loose. You may find it helpful to set an alarm or desktop notification as a reminder.
- Eat a healthy diet.
Health and diet
There are a couple of things to take into consideration when it comes to preventing muscle stiffness. Making sure you stay hydrated and are getting enough of the right nutrients.
Making sure you have enough water in your body helps your muscles work well. Many experts recommend eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other healthy drinks every day. If you are active and sweat, you should have extra water. One study found that dehydration during exercise increases the chance of muscle damage and causes more muscle soreness.
Calcium and magnesium
Calcium and magnesium are important to muscle health.
The daily recommended amount of calcium is 1,000 milligrams for young adults and 1,200 milligrams for women over 50 years and men over 70 years. Common sources of calcium include:
- milk and other dairy foods
- rice and almond milk
- soy foods including soy milk
- fortified orange juice
While uncommon, severe magnesium deficiency causes muscle problems. The national average of magnesium intake for Americans is 350 milligrams. It’s recommended that we get 400 milligrams of magnesium a day.
Sources of magnesium include:
- dark leafy greens
You can read more about the causes of muscle stiffness, including prevention, below.
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