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What causes muscle stiffness?

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What is muscle stiffness?

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 body's muscles, causing acute pain that makes it difficult to move.

What causes muscle stiffness?

There are muscles all over your body. When it is necessary to move a particular part of your body, the brain sends a nervous signal to the muscles located in that part of the body. This causes the muscles to tighten, or contract.
The muscles can contract a little or a lot, depending on the type of signal the brain sends. After contracting, the muscles relax until the next time you need to use them.
Muscle stiffness occurs when a muscle or group of muscles stays contracted or partly contracted for an extended period. The brain continues to send nerve signals that tell the muscle to contract, even when the muscle is no longer needed for movement.
This can sometimes last for several hours or days. The longer the muscle remains contracted, the more pain you will feel.
Muscle stiffness is often triggered by stress .
Stress can negatively affect your body's nervous system - including nerves - and their functioning.
Your nervous system can respond to stress by putting additional pressure on the blood vessels, which results in reduced blood flow to the muscles. This can cause muscle tension and pain.
Some medications, such as statins , can also cause muscle stiffness. Some medical conditions can also contribute to it. These include:
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis , which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve problems and loss of control of voluntary muscles
  • chronic stress compartment syndrome , which is a muscle and nerve exercise-induced condition that causes pain and swelling
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome , which is a condition that causes extreme fatigue, changes in sleep, and muscle pain
  • claudication , which is a condition in which cramps occur due to a lack of blood flow to the muscles, usually in the legs
  • dehydration , which is a condition that develops due to not drinking enough water
  • onset delayed muscle pain , which is a condition characterized by muscle pain and stiffness that develops hours or days after very strenuous exercise
  • dystonia , which is a condition that causes random and involuntary muscle contractions
  • fibromyalgia , which is a chronic disease that can cause muscle pain, pain, and stiffness
  • lupus , which is a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause pain and stiffness in the joints
  • Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever, which are diseases transmitted by ticks that can cause damage to the nervous system
  • myofascial pain syndrome , which is a chronic disease in which pressure on sensitive points in muscles causes pain
  • Parkinson's disease , which is a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement
  • polymyalgia rheumatica , which is a chronic inflammatory disease that can cause muscle pain and stiffness, especially in the shoulders
  • Repetitive strain injury , which is an injury to muscles or nerves due to overuse of muscles
  • rheumatoid arthritis , which is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the joints, especially those of the hands and feet
  • bacterial and viral infections
  • pinched nerves

When should a doctor be called about Muscle stiffness?

If you know that your muscle stiffness is the result of a minor injury, stress or overuse, then you can usually treat it at home effectively. However, if you suspect that muscle stiffness is caused by a serious injury or an undiagnosed condition, call your doctor.
You should also contact your doctor if muscle stiffness does not go away within a week or is accompanied by one of the following:
  • tick bite
  • an unexplained eruption
  • red and swollen muscles
  • an increase in the dosage of the drug or a change in therapy
Call 911 or go to the emergency room right away if you experience muscle stiffness along with any of the following symptoms:
  • difficult breathing
  • dizziness
  • severe muscle weakness
  • high fever
  • stiffness in the neck

How is muscle stiffness diagnosed?

To diagnose muscle stiffness, the doctor will first request your medical history and perform a physical examination. They can also perform laboratory tests to look for muscle damage and to rule out any underlying conditions that can cause your muscle stiffness.
These tests may include:
  • blood tests , which can help your medical control for muscle damage and the presence of some autoimmune diseases that can cause stiffness
  • MRI and CT , which can reveal any bone abnormalities that can cause pinched nerves
  • an electromyography , which can help the doctor evaluate how well the muscles and nerves are working
  • an ultrasound , which can help the doctor find tears and inflammation in the muscle fibers

How is muscle rigidity treated?

The main goal of treatment is to encourage the muscles to relax. The specific treatment used for muscle stiffness may vary depending on the cause.

Home remedies

Home remedies are usually effective in treating muscle stiffness caused by minor injuries, stress , or overuse. They may include:
  • Applying a hot pack or electric plate to the affected muscle to help relax stiff muscles.
  • Gently stretching the stiff muscle to help relax it.
  • Avoid strenuous activities that can trigger the muscle to become stiff again.
  • Encourage your muscles to relax with massages , yoga or tai chi .

Medical treatment

You will need medical treatment for any serious injuries or underlying health conditions that can cause your muscle stiffness. The first treatment deal with the condition or injury and therefore muscle stiffness.
Depending on the specific cause of muscle stiffness, medical treatment may involve surgery, medication and physical therapy. You and your doctor can discuss what treatments would be best for you.
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About Minh Hiếu

Le Minh Hieu is a national-level weightlifter and a Singapore Weightlifting sports performance coach. Hieu's biggest passion is helping everyone find confidence, happiness, and health through fitness.


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