Most everyone has experienced stiff muscles. Muscle pain can occur when you exercise too hard or sleep in a strange position. Muscle imbalance or poor exercise technique can also cause this stiffness. Fortunately, there are some relatively simple ways to treat tight muscles.
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Understand Muscle Stiffness
Muscle tightness has a significant impact on life quality, according to a 2017 report in the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. Health care professionals typically don't provide care for this problem — they consider it a self-resolving symptom. Yet clients often have to find ways to manage muscle stiffness every day.
Measure Muscle Stiffness
Researchers measure muscle stiffness in several ways, according to a 2018 paper in Scientific Reports.
- Subjective reports
allow clients to describe their physical and mental health.
- Range-of-motion studies allow scientists to document how far you can move a
joint without experiencing pain.
- Ultrasound can show changes deep
inside a muscle.
- And elastography gives researchers insight about the mechanical properties of soft tissue.
Each measurement technique has advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, however, muscle stiffness is a feeling. People know when their muscles feel tight or loose, and they know when a treatment makes them feel better. Fortunately, subjective reports correlate well with objective measures during treatment.
Know the Causes
Several everyday activities, as well as training exercises, may lead to muscle stiffness. Moving an object away from your body reliably produces tight muscles. For example, athletes who throw things typically have greater stiffness in their dominant arm. Changing your body position also affects muscle tightness. Transitioning from a lying position to a sitting position immediately makes your shoulder muscles more stiff.
Disease and injury can cause muscle tightness too, according to a 2017 paper in the Journal of Clinical Nursing. The authors noted that neurological disorders, sports injuries and car wrecks also produce a similar feeling in your muscles. Myofascial pain also appears in chronic conditions like fibromyalgia.
Demographic variables play a role in muscle tightness as well. Age increases stiffness, and there are gender effects — men typically show greater muscle stiffness than women. The menstrual cycle doesn't seem to affect muscle tone.
Know the Theories
Scientists still don't completely understand what causes stiff muscles, yet several theories exist.
The theories about trigger points remain controversial, but doctors have gradually started to use them in practice. Ultrasound, for example, can find taut bands in muscle tissue. These bands correlate well with feelings of stiffness, spasm and muscle pain.
Trigger point theory suggests that your muscles get damaged during overuse, misuse and injury. These contractures release toxic chemicals and cause muscle spasms. Such changes make certain places on your body tender and painful to touch.
Read more: What Causes Muscle Tightness Post-Workout?
Know the Consequences
While muscle stiffness was long considered harmless, physical therapists are slowly noticing how it affects their clients' lifestyles. The pain from tight muscles can decrease your ability to function. Runners and dancers with tight muscles are more likely to get hurt. Treating muscle stiffness will help you move better and avoid injury.
Read more: Shin Tightening During Running
Know the Treatments
Various treatments are used to alleviate muscle stiffness. Options range from using mechanical devices to taking harmful drugs. Some treatments seem ineffective, and some even sound dangerous. Yet people have found great success with natural treatments.
A treatment can have unexpected consequences, and it may cause side effects when combined with medications. Your tight muscles might also arise from an undetected medical condition. So be sure to speak with a health care professional like a trainer or doctor if you have chronic muscle stiffness.
Read more: Side Effects of Taking Too Many Dietary Supplements
Get Massage Therapy
The muscle contractures that cause feelings of muscle tightness may respond to physical manipulation. Some massage therapists believe they can release the contracture with a deft touch. A 2017 report in the Journal of Physical Education and Sport explored this idea in patients with severe back pain.
Participants received a complaint-specific massage several days a week for a month. After 10 sessions, the treatment group had less self-reported tightness than the control group. They had a shorter period of rehabilitation as well. Massage also decreases muscle stiffness in healthy adults, but the effect seems temporary in that group.
Read more: Regular Massage Benefits
Use Static Stretching
Trainers use static stretching techniques to increase their clients' flexibility. In this protocol, you slowly reach a predetermined pose and hold it for a certain length of time. There's no consensus on the best duration for holding the stretches, but most protocols will increase your range of motion. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science tested the effects of static stretching on men with tight hamstrings.
The subjects stretched daily for 10 minutes. A control group received moist heat. After five sessions, static stretching — but not moist heat — increased the participants' range of motion. The researchers obtained similar results using contract-relax stretching as well.
Read more: 11 Stretches Almost Everyone Can Do
Do Self-Myofascial Release
Self-myofascial release has greatly increased in popularity. For this technique, you use a lacrosse ball or foam roller to gently knead your own muscles. It's touted as a way to enhance recovery and prevent injury. A 2015 experiment described in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies examined the impact of self-myofascial release on muscle stiffness.
Participants did four minutes of self-myofascial release on one occasion, and they applied a heat pack for 10 or 20 minutes on other occasions. Only self-myofascial release decreased muscle stiffness as measured by elastography. The treatment also caused deep tissue changes.
Read more: DOs and DON'Ts of Self-Myofascial Release
Add Cycling to Foam Rolling
Pairing foam rolling with cycling as a warmup routine may be even more beneficial. A 2017 study presented in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports evaluated the combination in healthy adults. Compared to no warmup, the pair of exercises decreased muscle stiffness as measured by range of motion and elastography. The effect appeared immediately after the warmup and continued for 30 minutes.
Try Vibration Therapy
Vibration therapy may give you another way to decrease muscle tightness. Health clubs have started offering the use of vibration therapy machines to their clients. It's unclear what frequency produces the greatest benefit, but whole-body vibration has many health benefits. A 2018 report in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise explored the possible effects of using focused pulses of vibration therapy.
The researchers gave healthy adults a few minutes of vibration therapy in a single session. They targeted soft tissues in the face and neck and used elastography to measure muscle stiffness. Compared to baseline, vibration therapy decreased stiffness in the masseter muscle. You use this facial muscle to chew, and it's often tight in patients with temporomandibular joint disorders.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Vibrational Massage?
Use Proper Form
Personal trainers often remind clients to use proper technique during workouts. While good form is important for your safety, it may also play a role in preventing muscle stiffness. A 2017 report in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies looked at the impact of changing technique during leg-extension and leg-press exercises.
Subjects did the resistance exercises with different amounts of bend in their knees. Larger bends recruit more leg muscles, and they spread the strain throughout these muscles. Trainers usually consider larger bends to be better form because they decrease stress on the lower back. Compared to a 50-degree bend, movements done with a 100-degree bend caused less post-exercise stiffness.
Know the Limitations
You can't always treat muscle stiffness. Some muscles cannot be stretched because of typical anatomical limitations. For example, the muscle along your shin — the tibialis anterior — cannot fully extend because you can't point your toe completely straight down. So stretching this muscle can remain unsatisfying.
It's also wise not to overstretch. Even when properly done, stretching protocols have caused severe injuries in rare cases. Holding awkward positions — like those in yoga — for long periods of time can cause similar damage, according to a 2013 report in the Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Overtraining can damage muscles as well, according to a 2018 paper presented at the TACSM Conference. Thus, as with most things, you should exercise in moderation. The authors of the 2018 paper also recommended getting enough sleep to ensure proper muscle recovery. This healing alone may help you decrease muscle stiffness.
- Journal of Neuroscience Nursing: Lived Experiences of Muscle Tightness Symptoms From Patients' Perspectives
- Scientific Reports: Associations of Passive Muscle Stiffness, Muscle Stretch Tolerance, and Muscle Slack Angle with Range of Motion
- Journal of Clinical Nursing: Understanding Symptom Experiences of Muscle Tightness From Patients' and Clinicians' Perspectives
- Journal of Physical Education and Sport: Effectiveness of Massage and Muscle Energy Techniques in Treating the Myofascial Syndrome in the Back
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: Effect of Modified Hold-Relax Stretching and Static Stretching on Hamstring Muscle Flexibility
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies: Comparative Analysis of Ultrasound Changes in the Vastus Lateralis Muscle Following Myofascial Release and Thermotherapy
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports: Effects of Warm-Up on Hamstring Muscles Stiffness
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies: Muscle Strength and Stiffness in Resistance Exercise
- Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine: Sciatic Nerve Injury Caused by a Stretching Exercise in a Trained Dancer
- TACSM Conference: Relationship Between Heart Rate Variability and Skeletal Muscle Damage in Female Collegiate Athletes
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Acute Effect of Localized Vibration on Reducing Masseter Stiffness as Measured by Elastography
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.