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What Causes Muscle Stiffness?

By L. Hepfer
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Muscle stiffness is caused when the muscles in a certain area of the body contract and become tense. Stiff muscles can happen from a variety of situations. These situations can range from having periods of inactivity to exercising, physical labor or playing sports. If muscles are healthy, stiffness may be caused from an insect bite, an infection, an injury or possibly bleeding in the muscle and various medical conditions.

Muscle stiffness can occur in any area of the body. Any prolonged stiffness should be looked at by a physician to rule out any medical issues that need treated. Muscle stiffness throughout the entire body at one time can be signs of influenza, however, stiffness in the muscles is usually centered around one area of the body at any given time.

Stiff muscles in the neck area can be caused by something as simple as poor sleeping posture or being exposed to cold weather for long periods of time. It can be caused by physical conditions that stem from an injury, whiplash, arthritis or various spinal disorders. Other conditions that cause stiffness in the neck area could be infections such as meningitis or polio.

Stiffness in the back may occur after sleeping all night on a mattress that is either too soft or too hard. It can also stem from an injury or spinal disorder. The joints in a person's body may experience stiffness from an injury or a strain. Stiffness in the joints can also begin as a person ages. Tendinitis, muscle spasms and arthritis cause pain and stiffness in the joints as well.

Experiencing stiffness in the hip area is usually a result of arthritis or a more serious medical condition like Antley-Bixler syndrome or hypophosphatemic rickets. Antley-Bixler Syndrome and arthritis cause stiffness in the knees. An elbow with muscle stiffness can be caused by a sprain or epicondylitis. Adrenoleukodystrophy syndrome, Alexander syndrome, Alpers syndrome and Fahr's syndrome cause stiffness in the legs. These various conditions can also cause stiffness in the arms.

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Discussion Comments

By anon995649 — On May 17, 2016

I always get cramps at both legs and toes at night when I perform some work in excess. I also get muscle stiffness at my phalanges when doing manual work. I have to wake up seek a position to ease the pain. I have tried rubbing alcohol and found it useful. A relative advised me to drink some Indian tonic. I tried it and found that it really good against cramps.

By anon952652 — On May 22, 2014

I’m 52 and constantly suffer from muscle stiffness, especially in the morning. Lately I found an ointment which apparently seems to be helping me. The most interesting thing about it, is it contains a natural extract from amber. It gives a natural warm feeling and gently relieves pain. It's best for massage.

By John57 — On Nov 17, 2012

I have a lot of shoulder muscle pain and know this is from arthritis in my shoulder. I recently had an x-ray taken and the doctor said I will eventually need to have a shoulder replacement.

This seems to bother me more at night than any other time of day. Maybe because I am moving around during the day, but at night it is really stiff and sore. On the nights it is really bad I take some muscle pain reliever, but I know this is only a temporary fix.

I also like to treat myself to a massage from time to time. I can tell when I am under a lot of stress because all of my muscles are tense and stiff and I have a hard time relaxing. It is amazing how much better and lighter I feel after a massage that includes some deep tissue work.

By golf07 — On Nov 17, 2012

Both my husband and I used to wake up with a sore, stiff back. Sometimes my back hurt so bad I could hardly walk when I got out of bed. Not to mention we were grouchy because we didn't have a very good night of sleep.

We ended up changing our mattress and got one where you could control how firm or soft your side of the bed was. This has made a huge difference for us and would never go back to the mattress we had before. I really notice this when we sleep in a different bed away from home. I wake up with the same stiffness in my back and am ready to get home to my own bed.

By andee — On Nov 17, 2012

I have found that many things I enjoy end up causing me muscle pain and stiffness. I think the biggest reason is because I spend too much time at it without taking a break.

I love to work on just about any type of craft and also love to crochet. After a few hours though I have stiffness, especially in my neck. I have to get up and walk around every hour or so and also find myself massaging my neck muscles from time to time.

While I know the cause of my muscle stiffness, this is still frustrating to me, especially since I am doing something I enjoy so much. It has been hard for me, but I have had to really concentrate on moving around more and not keeping my body scrunched over in one position too long.

By Mykol — On Nov 16, 2012

@seag47 -- I completely understand how you feel. I love to garden, but it is hard on my body and I often have sore muscles for a few days after working outside. I think all of the bending, stooping and getting up and down is hard on my body when I am not used to it. Raking leaves in the fall is another thing that gives me muscle stiffness. After a long day of working outside one thing that gives me muscle pain relief is a long soak in a tub of hot water.

By seag47 — On Nov 15, 2012

I got extreme leg muscle pain and stiffness after planting twenty tulip bulbs. I had to get up and down over and over again, and I wasn't used to this type of exercise.

Also, I had to dig a lot with the shovel, because the bulbs needed to be at least six inches underground. I think that if I had planted a few at a time, my muscles wouldn't have gotten so stiff, but I wanted to get it all done in one day.

My legs felt like gelatin the next day. I couldn't walk without shaking. I had to walk very slowly everywhere I went.

Ibuprofen helped the pain. Getting over the stiffness just took time. I believe it took about four days before I was back to normal again.

By Perdido — On Nov 14, 2012

I used to slave away at a desk job all day, and when I got home, my shoulders and neck would be painfully stiff. Over the counter pain relievers didn't do much to help, either.

The best of the muscle pain remedies that I tried was applying heat. I had a towel filled with rice and sewed shut that I would microwave until it was hot, and I would wrap it around my neck. It was very flexible, so I could position it wherever I needed it.

By DylanB — On Nov 14, 2012

@shell4life – I've had that type of muscle pain before. I started getting cramps in my calves in the middle of the night.

They would wake me up, and I would cry because the pain was so great. Massaging didn't help, and walking on them was impossible. All I could do was wait for the cramps to cease.

I discovered that the reason I was having this type of muscle stiffness was a lack of potassium in my diet. I made it a practice to eat a banana every morning at breakfast, and this keeps the cramps away. I know that it's working, because if I skip the banana for a day or two, I get a bad cramp in the night.

By shell4life — On Nov 13, 2012

@anon262742 – You are right. Dehydration can cause cramping, which is an extreme form of muscle stiffness.

I used to work outdoors in the sun, and the combination of the heat and not drinking enough water to replenish the fluids I was sweating out caused me to have very painful muscle cramps in my legs. They were debilitating, and I had to stop work until they subsided.

It's always best to drink plenty of water when you know you will be losing fluids through sweat. Whether it's just being out in the heat or exercising strenuously, you have to have water going in to prevent muscle stiffness.

By anon278579 — On Jul 08, 2012

When muscles shrink for any reason, they cause stiffness. This is like how fruits look when they dry up! To relieve muscle stiffness, do the opposite: stretch them, and keep extending the stretch every day. Each one of us has the capacity to have flexibility like a gymnast. Make sure to eat the right foods with no toxins.

By anon262742 — On Apr 20, 2012

I'm shocked and surprised that no one has mentioned that muscles are comprised of mostly water and that muscle stiffness could also be due to dehydration. Am I wrong?

By anon254379 — On Mar 13, 2012

I been having stiff muscles from both my legs for some months now, with itchy skin in the leg, burning sensation, lame walking? Which treatment do I do to stop this situation.

By anon174747 — On May 11, 2011

i have got stiffness in almost every muscle in my body from the legs back of my arms the neck even on my back can hardly do the things i used to do get fatigued very fast with profuse sweating even after a minor chore or exercise could this be an indicator of certain illness

By anon169808 — On Apr 23, 2011

I had a lot of muscle pain and stiffness. I started taking vitamin D and it really helped me. Check out the Vitamin D Council website or read "The Vitamin D Cure". I found this book at my local library.

By anon158391 — On Mar 07, 2011

I've been suffering from upper back, shoulders and neck pain. The muscles over these areas become stiff which is very painful. It's been more than a year now. I've undergone therapies, took hundreds of pain relievers and and muscle relaxants but to no avail. My xrays turned out to be normal. I don't know what to do anymore.

By icecream17 — On Jul 19, 2010

Cupcake15- I know what you mean. I have had muscle stiffness in my legs from running also. But I have to say the worst pain has to be the lower back pain. I had really bad lower back stiffness and I changed my mattress to a Tempur-Pedic mattress and my pain went away.

The mattress is made of memory foam and it feels like a glove. The mattress relieved the pressure points in my lower back that allowed me to sleep better. This mattress cost me $2,000, but it was well worth it.

By cupcake15 — On Jul 19, 2010

Mutsy- I agree with you. The other day I went for a jog and forgot to stretch before I jogged and my muscles were stiff for three days.

I had to get some muscle rub at the drug store in order to relieve my discomfort. The muscle rub developed a soothing heat on my legs that really relaxed the pain. It felt a little like vapor rub.

By mutsy — On Jul 19, 2010

I just want to add that muscle stiffness can sometimes occur if you don’t warm up and cool down before and after a workout.

When you perform strenuous exercise and you have not stretched your muscles you usually develop muscle stiffness the next day. Sometimes the stiffness lasts several days.

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