Muscle Stiffness

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Most people experience muscle stiffness at some point in their lives, whether after strenuous activity or due to an injury. However, muscle stiffness can also be a sign of an underlying health condition or a side effect of medication, or it may develop from an insect bite or sting.

This article discusses symptoms of muscle stiffness, its possible causes, and treatment options.

Woman with stiff muscle in calf

Zbynek Pospisil / Getty Images

Symptoms of Muscle Stiffness

The most apparent symptoms of muscle stiffness are tightness and difficulty moving. Additional symptoms may occur with certain conditions or from medications.

Causes of Muscle Stiffness

Muscle stiffness often results from exercise or injury and is a common side effect of poor posture. It can also be a symptom of an underlying health condition, a reaction to an insect bite or sting, or a side effect of certain medications.

Physical Activity

A response called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is associated with muscle stiffness after strenuous physical activity. Symptoms often begin 12 to 24 hours after exercise and peak around 24 to 72 hours.

In addition to muscle stiffness, DOMS can cause:

  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain with touch
  • Swelling
  • Weakness

DOMS can occur with any exercise but is most common with jogging or running, walking downhill, jumping, step aerobics, and strength training. It typically resolves on its own, but ice packs and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen), can help decrease symptoms.

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis is an uncommon but potentially life-threatening medical condition that can result from physical exertion. It is caused by excessive muscle damage that releases proteins and electrolytes into the blood. If you experience severe muscle pain or cramping, dark-colored urine, or significant fatigue, seek immediate medical attention.

Injury

Muscle stiffness can occur with injuries like muscle strains or ligament sprains. Minor injuries often resolve within a few days. However, if your symptoms persist, see a healthcare provider. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following:

  • Severe pain
  • Joint deformity
  • Inability to move the affected area
  • Difficulty walking or weight bearing

These symptoms could indicate a more severe injury, such as a muscle or ligament tear or a broken bone. Severe injuries are diagnosed with imaging such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Your provider may recommend physical therapy, or in more severe cases, you may need surgery.

Musculoskeletal Conditions

Health conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system can cause stiffness, sometimes in specific areas of the body. Examples include:

  • Bursitis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Tendonitis

These conditions are diagnosed with a physical exam and imaging, such as X-rays and an MRI. Treatment could include physical therapy, NSAIDs, or cortisone injections to decrease inflammation.

Autoimmune Conditions

Polymyalgia rheumatica is a disease that occurs when the body attacks its healthy tissues. This condition causes inflammation and muscle stiffness throughout the body. Other symptoms include:

  • Body aches
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss

Polymyalgia rheumatica is diagnosed through a physical exam and blood tests. It is treated with medication to decrease inflammation and exercise to decrease stiffness.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the lining around joints, called the synovium.

RA symptoms usually include:

  • Increased stiffness first thing in the morning
  • Symptoms affecting more than one joint
  • Symptoms occurring in the hands, wrists, and feet first
  • Symptoms occurring in the same joints on both sides of the body at the same time
  • Tenderness, pain, swelling, and stiffness for six weeks or more

RA is diagnosed by a review of your symptoms, physical exam, and blood tests to look for specific blood proteins and signs of inflammation. Treatment includes medication, activity modifications to decrease stress on affected joints, and physical therapy. In severe cases, you may need surgery.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes muscle pain and stiffness for most people with the condition. Other symptoms can include:

  • Anemia
  • Blood clots
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Eye disorders
  • Fever
  • Kidney issues
  • Loss of hair
  • Rash
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Significant fatigue
  • Sores in the mouth

Lupus is diagnosed with blood tests and biopsy of affected tissues and is treated with medications.

What Medication Can Cause Stiff Muscles?

Muscle stiffness can be a side effect of certain medications, such as:

  • Statins (used to lower cholesterol)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications (such as dexmethylphenidate)
  • Antipsychotics (used to treat mental health conditions)

If you have muscle stiffness, let your healthcare provider know about any medications you are taking.

Insect Bites or Stings

Muscle stiffness can occur with insect bites or stings and is more likely to happen if the area becomes infected. Insects can also carry diseases that cause muscle stiffness. For example, tick bites can lead to Lyme disease.

Other symptoms of this condition include:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle soreness
  • Sore throat
  • Stiff neck
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Lyme disease symptoms can take up to one month after a tick bite to develop and are treated with antibiotics.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

See your healthcare provider if your muscle soreness doesn't resolve within a few days. Seek medical attention sooner if your symptoms don't have an apparent cause (such as exercise or injury), if your symptoms keep you from doing everyday tasks, or if you have additional symptoms such as a fever or rash.

Summary

Muscle stiffness is common, particularly after strenuous activity. This symptom can also occur with injuries, musculoskeletal conditions, or autoimmune diseases. Muscle stiffness can develop from insect bites or stings or be a side effect of certain medications. Diagnosis and treatment are specific to the underlying cause.

A Word From Verywell

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have muscle stiffness that persists for more than a few days. Stiffness can affect your movement, eventually leading to problems in other parts of your body. If your muscle stiffness is related to an injury or poor posture, consult a physical therapist for an individualized exercise program.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes muscle stiffness?

    Muscle stiffness often occurs after strenuous exercise or injuries. Less commonly, it is a sign of an underlying health condition or a side effect of medication.

  • How can I get rid of muscle stiffness?

    Treatment for muscle stiffness depends on the underlying cause. Stiffness caused by exercise or minor injuries often improves with anti-inflammatory medication and ice.

  • What are the symptoms of muscle stiffness?

    The most apparent symptom of muscle stiffness is a feeling of tightness and difficulty moving. However, depending on the cause, you can have other symptoms such as pain, redness, or swelling.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Muscle pain.

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. 4 ways to turn good posture into less back pain.

  3. American College of Sports Medicine. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rhabdomyolysis.

  5. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Sports injuries.

  6. MedStart Health. Arthritis, bursitis, or tendonitis: what is causing my pain?

  7. Arthritis Foundation. Polymyalgia rheumatica.

  8. Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid arthritis: causes symptoms, treatments and more.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lupus symptoms.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosing and treating lupus.

  11. Harvard Health Publishing. Managing statin muscle pain.

  12. Kon JJ, Kon AA. Severe muscle pain and stiffness due to dexmethylphenidateClin Case Rep. 2020;8(3):420-422. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002%2Fccr3.2628

  13. Mental Health America. What are the side-effects of antipsychotic meds?

  14. Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center. Lyme disease signs & symptoms.

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.