Sometimes, a person’s muscles may feel tight and rigid. In some cases, muscle tightness and rigidity may come with other symptoms, such as muscle pain, muscle spasms, or reduced mobility.
Mild muscle tightness and rigidity is often benign and treatable. But muscle tightness and rigidity that is severe, chronic, or comes on very suddenly can signal a serious underlying health condition.
This article outlines some common causes of tight, rigid muscles, along with their associated treatments. We also provide information on how to help prevent muscular symptoms, where possible.
Sprains and strains are injuries to soft tissue. A sprain affects a ligament, while a strain affects a muscle or tendon. Ligaments are connective tissues that attach bones to other bones, while tendons are connective tissues that attach muscles to bones.
Sprain and strain injuries exist on a continuum, from minor stretching of the affected area to a complete tear. Both types of injury typically occur suddenly, such as when a person falls. But they can also develop gradually due to overuse.
Symptoms of sprains and strains include:
- sudden pain or tenderness
- muscle stiffness
- difficulty moving the affected area
In most cases, sprain and strain injuries heal on their own. A person can also try the following home remedies to assist their recovery:
- Rest: Rest the affected area to promote healing and help prevent further injury.
- Ice: Apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Compression: Apply a compression bandage to reduce swelling.
- Elevation: Elevate the affected limb to reduce swelling and inflammation.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: Take acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication to alleviate pain.
Exercise-related muscle stiffness can occur following excessive exercise or a sudden change to a person’s exercise routine.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is one of the most common causes of exercise-related injuries. With DOMS, microscopic tears develop within overexerted muscles, causing the muscles to feel sore and rigid the following day. Symptoms usually last 3–5 days and go away on their own.
In the meantime, a person can try the following home remedies to help alleviate the pain:
- applying ice packs
- elevating the affected limb
- taking an OTC pain reliever
A sedentary lifestyle can weaken the muscles, making them vulnerable to injury. Muscle tightness and rigidity can develop due to a lack of exercise or as a result of sitting for prolonged periods at work or at home.
A sedentary lifestyle might be the culprit if the pain is worse after long periods of sitting, if it appears gradually and gets worse over time, or if it reduces after periods of activity.
In order to ease muscular problems, a person should try taking frequent stretching breaks and committing to more regular exercise. A long sedentary period may increase the risk of injuries from exercise, so a person should gradually build up the intensity and frequency of their exercise.
- difficulty thinking clearly
- changes in mood
- elevated body temperature
Drinking more water can help to both prevent and treat dehydration. An electrolyte solution may be particularly beneficial for helping to relieve dehydration-induced muscle spasms.
Dehydration can also occur as a result of excessive vomiting or diarrhea. A person who experiences these symptoms should see their doctor to diagnose the underlying cause and to receive any necessary treatments.
Below are some infections that can cause stiff muscles.
Influenza and norovirus
Norovirus is a
The above infections usually go away on their own, though resting and drinking plenty of fluids can aid recovery. If symptoms worsen, a doctor may recommend additional treatments.
Mononucleosis or “mono” is an infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Mononucleosis is another common cause of stiff muscles, especially in children and young adults. Other symptoms of mono include:
There is no specific treatment for mono, and the condition usually goes away on its own. But mono can cause serious complications such as a ruptured spleen, so people who think they have the condition should contact a doctor.
Meningitis is the medical term for an infection of the membranes or “meninges” covering the brain and spinal cord. The condition can develop as a result of a viral or bacterial infection. As such, anyone who suddenly becomes much sicker following a viral or bacterial infection should contact their doctor.
Symptoms of meningitis may include:
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complex disorder that causes a person to feel intense mental and physical fatigue. Some people also experience muscle stiffness or weakness. Other symptoms can include flu-like symptoms, exercise intolerance, and swollen lymph nodes.
There is no cure for CFS, but people can manage the condition with adjustments to their lifestyle.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disease involving muscle pain, usually in specific tender spots. Other possible symptoms include:
- brain fog
A person may have fibromyalgia if they notice unexplained muscle stiffness or tension that does not get better with time and does not respond to home remedies.
The following treatments may help to alleviate some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia:
- pain medication
- exercise and stretching
- low-dose antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, both of which act on neurotransmitters that may cause chronic pain
- muscle tightness or rigidity
- muscle spasms
- muscle pain
These symptoms worsen over time, eventually affecting swallowing and breathing.
There is no cure for ALS, though the medications rilutek and radicava may help slow progression in some people. Treatment primarily focuses on managing symptoms.
- chronic, progressive muscle shaking
- weakness that may eventually cause a person to lose mobility
There is no cure for PD, and most people with the disease find that their symptoms steadily worsen over time. It is difficult to predict how quickly the disease will progress. Some people with PD have many years of reasonably good health, while others experience more rapid disease progression.
A doctor may prescribe medications or therapies to help manage PD and its symptoms. Some possible treatment options include:
- the medication levadopa, which may temporarily slow the progression of PD
- physical therapy to improve mobility
- prescription antidepressants to help treat depression
Stiff person syndrome (SPD) is a rare neurological disorder that causes periods of muscle pain, stiffness, and spasms. Symptoms usually develop steadily over time.
Muscle spasms sometimes happen in response to triggers, such as loud noises. Periods of muscle stiffness can last for hours then go away. In some cases, the stiffness can become so debilitating that a person needs a wheelchair or other supportive devices.
Doctors do not know what causes SPD, and there is no cure for the condition. A doctor may prescribe drugs called “benzodiazepines” to ease symptoms. However, it is worth noting that these drugs cause can dependency.
The following home remedies may also be helpful:
- avoiding muscle spasm triggers
- applying heat to affected muscles
In order to diagnose the cause of muscle stiffness, a doctor will:
- review the person’s recent medical history
- ask the person about their pain and whether something specific seemed to trigger it
- ask the person about any other symptoms they may be experiencing
Depending on the symptoms and a person’s risk factors, a doctor may recommend:
- a physical exam of the muscles
- x-rays and other imaging scans, including brain scans if the doctor suspects meningitis
- blood work to look for infections and certain inflammatory markers
If a doctor cannot identify an obvious cause for the pain and does not suspect a serious underlying condition, they may recommend waiting a week or two to see if symptoms resolve on their own.
It is not possible to prevent all causes of muscle stiffness. But the following strategies can reduce the risk of muscle stiffness due to infection or injury:
- practicing frequent handwashing and avoiding people who are sick
- slowly building up to an exercise routine to reduce the risk of injury
- warming up and cooling down before exercising
- taking frequent stretching breaks if sitting for long periods
- getting more physical activity to improve muscle strength and reduce the risk of injuries
- talking with a physical therapist about exercises for managing chronic pain and reducing muscle weakness
Muscle stiffness is a common problem. Depending on the cause, the stiffness may come on rapidly or gradually. Some causes of muscle stiffness are acute and easily treatable, while others are chronic and have a poorer outlook.
For minor muscle stiffness with no other symptoms, a person should start with self-management techniques, such as gentle stretching and applying cold or warm compresses. If the person also experiences pain that worsens or does not go away, they should contact their doctor.
Muscle stiffness that is intense or happens alongside other serious symptoms may be a sign of a life threatening condition, such as meningitis. In such cases, people should err on the side of caution and see their doctor or go to the hospital immediately.