Tension, stress, overuse and strain injuries commonly cause muscle tightness. Prescription muscle relaxants like carisoprodol (Soma), cyclobenzaprine (Amrix, Fexmid) and methocarbamol (Robaxin) are effective for short-term use but can cause side effects, such as drowsiness and stomach upset. Home remedies often provide relief for minor to moderate muscle tightness.
Heat or Cold Therapy
Application of heat or cold can reduce muscle tightness. If your discomfort is due to a pulled muscle, cold therapy is generally recommended for the first 24 to 48 hours to limit inflammation and swelling. Thereafter, heat therapy is usually recommended to increase blood flow and promote healing. Muscle tightness caused by tension or stress appears to respond to equally well to cold and heat therapy, so the choice is largely a matter of personal preference. Talk with your healthcare provider if you are unsure whether heat or cold therapy is best for your situation.
For cold therapy, you can use an ice pack, a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel or a cold pack from your local pharmacy. These packs have the advantage of coming in a wide variety of sizes, including some large enough for your back. Options for heat therapy include a heating pad, hot water bottle or commercially available heat packs. If you don't have any of these handy, a hot bath or shower might ease your tight muscles.
Massage reduces muscle stiffness, although the exact mechanisms for this response remain incompletely understood. As a home remedy, you can try self massage if you can reach the stiff muscles. There are also a variety of massage tools available commercially. You might also consider asking your significant other or a trusted friend to massage areas that you are unable to reach, such as your back or shoulders. Some people find heat or cold therapy followed by massage helps maximize their muscle relaxation.
If you are unsure how to perform self massage, there are many books and online resources to get you started. You can also ask a licensed massage therapist or physical therapist how best to perform self massage.
Stress Reduction Techniques
Many people carry stress in their neck, shoulders and upper back. The resulting muscle tension and stiffness can cause pain and might contribute to tension-type headaches. Stress reduction techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation or guided imagery might help you relax and release some of the tension held in your upper back and neck muscles. Research is lacking on whether these techniques provide immediate relief for stiff muscles but might help reduce your discomfort over the longer term. These techniques can also be combined with other home remedies.
Topical Creams, Gels and Rubs
Several over-the-counter creams, gels and rubs are marketed to treat minor muscle aches and pains. The various products, such as Bengay, Flexall, Icy Hot and Thera-Gesic, typically contain one or more ingredients including camphor, eucalyptus, menthol and methyl salicylate, among others. While these products are marketed as pain relievers, there is some preliminar data to indicate they might also temporarily reduce muscle stiffness. A study published in March 2012 in Chiropractic and Manual Therapies found a single application of Bengay Ultra Strength and Icy Hot Extra Strength to the upper back reduced muscle tenderness and was associated with a trend toward increased ability to bend the head toward each shoulder, though these findings did not reach scientific significance. Additional research is needed.
Next Steps, Warnings and Precautions
See your healthcare provider if you experience unexplained, persistent or worsening muscle stiffness. Contact your doctor right away if your muscle stiffness is associated with difficulty moving the affected area or you experience severe or worsening pain, or other accompanying symptoms.
- Braddom's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 5th Edition; David X. Cifu
- Academic Emergency Medicine: Heat or Cold Packs for Neck and Back Strain: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Efficacy
- BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine: ‘Recover Quicker, Train Harder, and Increase Flexibility’: Massage Therapy for Elite Paracyclists, a Mixed-Methods Study
- Clinical Biomechanics: Effects of Immediate vs. Delayed Massage-like Loading on Skeletal Muscle Viscoelastic Properties Following Eccentric Exercise
- Compact Clinical Guide to Geriatric Pain Management: An Evidence-Based Approach for Nurses; Ann Quinlan-Colwell
- Journal of the Japanese Physical Therapy Association: Effectiveness of Physical Therapy in Patients with Tension-type Headache: Literature Review
- Chiropractic and Manual Therapies: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Double-Blinded Comparative Clinical Study of Five Over-The-Counter Non-Pharmacological Topical Analgesics for Myofascial Pain: Single Session Findings