After a full night's sleep, we all hope to feel rested and refreshed. But sometimes, we greet the morning with groans and grunts instead, thanks to stiff muscles.
Morning muscle stiffness is never a fun way to start the day, yet it's a common occurrence. And while its cause is usually simple — and treatable — achy muscles can occasionally indicate a more serious health issue.
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Here, Alice Chen, MD, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), shares reasons for morning muscle stiffness, plus ways to soothe the soreness.
1. You Slept the Wrong Way
The root of your morning muscles stiffness could be something as simple as the way you're sleeping.
While we snooze, we can unintentionally move into some uncomfortable positions. This can result in waking up with our muscles twisted in knots.
"Sleeping with the neck and back in a contorted position (like sleeping upright in a chair or sofa) can cause joint and muscle strain," Dr. Chen says.
Indeed, any position that throws your cervical spine (the top part of your spine) out of alignment can lead to neck and backaches.
“Sleep in a bed with adequate space and support," Dr. Chen says. Specifically, make sure your mattress helps neutralize the natural curves of your spine and promotes proper alignment (it should hold your whole body without your hips sagging).
Similarly, get good neck support from a pillow to maintain spinal alignment, Dr. Chen says. It's true, your pillow can either help prevent (or worsen) problems like muscle stiffness.
2. Your Workouts Are Too Strenuous
Going too hard at the gym? Your muscles may pay for it in the morning.
"After a heavy workout, muscles can feel sore because there is swelling of the muscle tissue," Dr. Chen says. And any time there's swelling, there's usually accompanying stiffness.
In addition to pushing too hard, training too much can also create problems. Your muscles require time to recover and repair between sweat sessions. When you don't give yourself adequate rest, you'll likely experience more extreme muscle soreness.
Over time, physical and emotional symptoms can result from overtraining. Look out for these signs, according to the American Council on Exercise:
- Decreased performance
- Increased perceived effort during workouts
- Excessive fatigue
- Agitation and moodiness
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic or nagging injuries
- Metabolic imbalances
- Psychological stress and/or depression
The first thing to do is slow down. After a hard workout, take ample recovery time to relax and recharge. At the very least, your body needs one full day of rest per week, according to the HSS.
Alternate between vigorous and light gym sessions, or incorporate cross-training and other forms of active rest into your weekly routine. This can help you avoid overtraining and unusually sore muscles, per the HSS.
On top of that, “make sure to drink enough water, as dehydration can make symptoms [like muscle stiffness] worse,” Dr. Chen adds.
3. You’re Not Moving Enough During the Day
While working out too hard (or too often) can cause stiffness, the opposite is also true. The less you move throughout the day, the more stiff you will feel come the next morning.
Long periods of inactivity, like watching TV or working a desk job, are a common cause of morning stiffness, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
And the reality is, you're most inactive when you're sleeping.
As the saying goes, motion is lotion. Move your body regularly to help lubricate your joints. It's true that healthy, limber joints equal less stiffness.
You can also try taking mini exercise or stretch breaks throughout the day. Just standing every 20 to 30 minutes to do arm sweeps or a back bend can work wonders to stave off stiffness, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Likewise, light stretching at night or a quick mobility routine before bed can help reduce those morning muscle aches.
4. You’re Getting Older
You may have noticed more morning aches and pains with the passing years. That's no coincidence.
"As the body ages, the joints experience more wear and tear," Dr. Chen says. This can cause stiffness, "especially when there are long periods of inactivity, like sleep."
Making matters worse, we tend to be more sedentary in older age. And as we know, lack of movement just makes our muscles more prone to soreness.
The answer here is also to stay active. "Gentle movements and light activity get the joint fluid loosened up, which alleviates stiffness," Dr. Chen says. Try these strength-training exercises for older adults, or these low-impact exercises.
5. It’s Your Diet
Believe it or not, what you put on your plate can affect whether you feel stiff when you wake up.
Here's why: Certain foods — such as those high in trans or unsaturated fats, omega-6, refined carbohydrates and added sugar — can contribute to inflammation in the body, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
These inflammatory foods can "affect the muscles (and blood vessels), making joints susceptible to swelling and pain," Dr. Chen says.
On the other hand, not getting enough essential nutrients, like vitamin D, can lead to issues like stiffness. Vitamin D is vital for bone and muscle health. It helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are necessary for healthy bones and tissues, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
When your body is deficient in vitamins and minerals you need, you may experience symptoms like muscle weakness, aches, cramps, bone pain and non-muscle-related symptoms like fatigue or depression.
Avoid or limit inflammatory foods and prioritize eating things rich in antioxidants like berries, leafy greens and oily fish, Dr. Chen says.
Also, make sure you get enough vitamin D every day — the daily recommended amount is 20 micrograms for most adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Here are some more ways you can get vitamin D, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Go outside and get sun exposure on your skin.
- Eat foods naturally rich in vitamin D including fatty fish, rainbow trout, beef liver, mushrooms, egg yolks and cod liver oil.
- Choose vitamin D-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, orange juice, milk and other dairy products.
- Try nutritional supplements and multivitamins.
6. You’re Coming Down With a Cold
Sometimes your morning stiffness can be a sign you're getting sick.
When your body is trying to fight off a common cold or virus, your immune system activates, triggering the release of infection-fighting white blood cells, according to UCLA Health.
"This inflammatory response is what causes the fever, aches and pains," Dr. Chen says.
The harder your body fights against the infection, the greater muscle soreness you'll experience.
Once your cold runs its course, your stiffness should go away. In the meantime, you can take steps to feel more comfortable. Reduce your fever with over-the-counter pain relievers and stay hydrated to help ease muscle aches, Dr. Chen says.
7. You’re Stressed
Muscle stiffness is one of many ways stress manifests in the body.
When you're stressed, your body's level of the hormone cortisol increases, Dr. Chen says. In small doses, cortisol can suppress inflammation. But when you are chronically stressed, you will have consistently high cortisol, which can have the opposite effect. It creates more inflammation and a weakened immune system, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
As a result of this inflammation, you may experience more muscle pain, weakness and soreness over time, Dr. Chen says.
In addition, stress can sabotage your sleep by keeping you tossing and turning all night, making you feel achier in the a.m.
"Stress in life is inevitable, but how you deal with stress will determine how your body responds," Dr. Chen says. To alleviate symptoms of stress and stiffness, she recommends regular aerobic exercise.
Other tried-and-true stress-management techniques include meditation, yoga and light stretching before bed to clear your mind.
8. You Have an Underlying Health Issue
Certain medical conditions like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis can cause inflammation in the body, triggering soreness and pain in the joints and muscles, Dr. Chen says.
Muscle stiffness due to illness is usually called systemic muscle pain — discomfort felt throughout your entire body, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is different from muscle soreness related to overtraining or stress, which tends to be localized (only affecting a few muscles).
Other medical conditions that cause muscle pain include fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, lupus and Lyme disease and many more, per the Mayo Clinic.
If you think your morning stiffness is coming from an underlying health issue, see your doctor. They can figure out the problem and offer treatment options to relieve pain.
When to See a Doctor
Waking up a little stiff and sore is pretty common, especially as we get older. But, morning stiffness should settle down once you start your day and begin to move around.
If your pain is lasting through the day, or is accompanied by other symptoms, talk to your doctor. They can evaluate you and help treat any underlying illness you may have.
- American Council on Exercise: “Overtraining | 9 Signs of Overtraining to Look Out For”
- Hospital for Special Surgery: “Overtraining: What It Is, Symptoms, and Recovery”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Stiff and achy in the mornings? How to fix that”
- Cleveland Clinic: “5 Foods That Can Cause Inflammation”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Vitamin D Deficiency”
- UCLA Health: “Why your whole body aches when you’re sick (and what you can do about it)”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Cortisol”
- Mayo Clinic: “Muscle pain”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.