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What Causes Stiff Legs?

K. Gierok
K. Gierok

Stiff legs can be caused by exercise, a lack of activity, circulatory problems, injury and immune system reactions and many different diseases. In most cases, it isn’t serious. The fact so many different things cause the problem, however, means that being evaluated by a doctor is usually a good idea when it persists, gets worse or shows up with other symptoms.


Jogging may lead to stiff legs.
Jogging may lead to stiff legs.

Working out or doing sports is perhaps the most common cause for stiff legs, as too much activity can cause both cramps and delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Doctors and scientists aren’t sure exactly why cramps happen with exercise, but they think that it could be related to overstimulation of nerves, poor electrolyte balance and dehydration. Drinking electrolyte drinks and properly resting between exercise sets might help. DOMS, which usually is most noticeable the day after a workout, happens because microscopic tears form in the muscle. The body eventually repairs these tears and makes the tissue stronger.

Lack of Activity

Arthritis can cause stiff legs.
Arthritis can cause stiff legs.

Just as too much activity can be a bad thing for the legs, doing nothing isn’t a good idea, either. In some cases, a lack of movement can cause fluids in the body to build up in the legs, which can make them stiff and painful to shift. Additionally, activity “warms up” the tissue, making it more flexible. When a person doesn’t do anything physical for a while, the muscles get “cold” and shorten a bit, becoming more rigid. This is why people gain a greater range of motion as they exercise, and why they can be stiff in the morning or after sitting for a long time.

Dehydration may cause stiff legs, so athletes should be sure to hydrate properly.
Dehydration may cause stiff legs, so athletes should be sure to hydrate properly.

The simple solution for this problem is to get up and do some basic movements to gently warm up. Ones to try are squats, hamstring curls, toe taps with leg lifts and quadricep extensions. It is a good idea to do more than one set of these, gradually working toward a greater range of motion with each set.

Circulatory Problems

In order to function well, muscles need enough oxygen. Blood carries the oxygen that is necessary to the working tissue, so when blood supply is limited, the muscle easily is fatigued and has a hard time moving. This can occur because of other medical issues such as diabetes, but it also can be the result of simply sitting in one position too long.

Injury and Immune System Reactions

Injury can cause stiff legs.
Injury can cause stiff legs.

Injury can result in stiff legs. This is typically because the immune system responds to the injury with inflammation, which helps the body repair damage and fight off infection. In order for this to happen, smooth muscles around blood vessels in the injured area have to contract to some degree. Without this process happening, leukocytes, or white blood cells that defend the body, would have a much harder time getting into the hurt tissue. When it happens right in the muscles, it is called myositis.

Too much activity can cause leg cramps and stiffness.
Too much activity can cause leg cramps and stiffness.

Inflammation and stiffness in the legs or other areas of the body is also linked to certain medical conditions. When a person’s diet is high in sugar or carbohydrates, for example, too much insulin can be released, which can trigger an immune system response. The problem also happens because of bacterial or viral infections and high amounts of certain hormones such as cortisol.


Leg lifts may help to warm up stiff legs.
Leg lifts may help to warm up stiff legs.

A number of diseases can cause stiff legs. These can be grouped very broadly into autoimmune, metabolic, and nervous system disorders. Many of these are thought to have genetic links, with research about treatments and cures still ongoing. The severity of symptoms often worsens over time as the conditions progress.

Probably the most well-known autoimmune condition that connects to leg stiffness is arthritis. This disease affects the joints, so it’s often the culprit when the lack of mobility is in the knee, ankle or hip. It is much more common in older people, but some types of arthritis appear even in teens and young adults. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications often help, as do gentle activities such as swimming or walking.

Tumors around the nerves' myelin sheaths could cause stiffness.
Tumors around the nerves' myelin sheaths could cause stiffness.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects muscles. It attacks the nervous system, especially the brain and spinal cord, breaking down the fatty covering or myelin sheath around nerve cells. This disrupts nerve signals and can affect movement.

Andrenoleukodystrophy refers to a group of metabolic disorders that affect how the body metabolizes or breaks down fats. One of these, adrenomyeloneuropathy, is an inherited disease that, like MS, destroys the myelin sheath. This negatively affects physical functions and can lead to stiffness of the limbs.

Three other conditions might cause leg issues due to their connection to the nervous system. In syringomyelia, cysts form on the spinal cord. In nerve sheath neoplasm, tumors grow around the myelin sheath, especially in the spinal cord. Hereditary spastic paraplegia, which is a term actually covering several similar conditions, causes degeneration in the tract that connects the spinal cord and brain.


By itself, a single instance of leg stiffness generally is nothing to worry about. When it becomes progressively worse or happens with greater frequency, however, then a person should see a doctor. It is also a good idea to get a medical examination if the problem is present with other symptoms such as fever or seizures, as this might show that the cause is more severe.

Discussion Comments


I had both hips replaced in 2004 and 2008. Now I have stiffness so bad I can hardly walk. I had X-rays and a CT done. My doc thought the replacement was coming loose, but that was not the problem. I take pain pills, but nothing seems to help,


I have the same problem. I have seen doctors, but have had no help. They never ask questions and never listen. I have bought a bike and that seems to help. I shall ask for an injection of Cortisone, just maybe. Take care. --Maddie.


I am having stiffness in my lower leg. There is no pain when I am siting or lying on bed. But when I am walking it is causing me some pain on the back side of lower leg.

Kindly suggest what should I do.


i had a problem with bending my leg. My upper leg muscle is squeezing with time. I'm doing my physiotherapy exercises but my muscle is not improving well. Please tell me the dietary supplements and the vitamins for the strengthening and help in supporting better blood flow to my muscle so that I can bend my leg fully.


My mother has a stiffening and very painful leg. Could it peripheral arteries disease or arthritis?


I have been diabetic for 30 years and am maintaining quite well with insulin. For the past four or five days I have been getting stiff legs and pains. My sugar is OK. Is it because of any other reason?


I have a baker's cyst which is behind the knee. It is very painful. I am trying stretching and water exercises. When I get up after sitting, it is very stiff and takes me a few seconds to get going.


My son is eight years and gets stiff nerves while sleeping, and also the jitters.


While standing and singing 15-20 minutes, my leg right leg becomes very stiff and difficult to walk back to my seat. Then, when I sit for about 10 minutes, I can walk again without difficulty, although my leg drags. Help!


@babylove - The stiffness in your legs could be caused from any number of things. Even though arthritis mainly targets the elderly, it can develop in anyone at any age. I've even heard of children having arthritis.

Diabetes can cause stiff leg muscles as well as a vitamin deficiency. Your doctor will be able to properly diagnose the problem and determine if there is a problem with your diet.

Smoking and drinking are known to weaken joints and cause muscle pain as well so cut back or quit altogether if that is an issue.

A good diet and gentle exercises may be all you need to remedy your stiff painful legs. Just ask your doctor.


I get extremely stiff painful legs after sitting even for just a short while. When I stand up I can barely move as though my legs won't work anymore.

It hurts like crazy to bend my knees and sometimes I even feel it in my ankles. Is this what arthritis feels like? I'm only twenty-eight years old! How can this be happening to me already?

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    • Jogging may lead to stiff legs.
      By: Martinan
      Jogging may lead to stiff legs.
    • Arthritis can cause stiff legs.
      By: Ocskay Bence
      Arthritis can cause stiff legs.
    • Dehydration may cause stiff legs, so athletes should be sure to hydrate properly.
      By: Andriy Petrenko
      Dehydration may cause stiff legs, so athletes should be sure to hydrate properly.
    • Injury can cause stiff legs.
      By: Halfpoint
      Injury can cause stiff legs.
    • Too much activity can cause leg cramps and stiffness.
      By: Maridav
      Too much activity can cause leg cramps and stiffness.
    • Leg lifts may help to warm up stiff legs.
      By: Gabriel Blaj
      Leg lifts may help to warm up stiff legs.
    • Tumors around the nerves' myelin sheaths could cause stiffness.
      By: Balint Radu
      Tumors around the nerves' myelin sheaths could cause stiffness.