While there are various types of muscles in the human body, when someone mentions muscle tightness, they’re usually talking about stiffness in the skeletal muscles. Skeletal muscles are attached to your bones and are responsible for everyday movement; these muscles can generally experience tightness for a host of reasons. However, muscle tightness post workout is most commonly caused by delayed onset muscle soreness.
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As the American Council on Exercise reports, delayed onset muscle soreness usually occurs for 24 to 72 hours after working out, and is manifested in the form of muscle pain and tightness. Even though some specifics on the origins of DOMS are debatable, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, most experts agree that DOMS happens as a result of microscopic tears in muscle fibers incurred during physical activity. One of the reasons why your muscles feel tight with DOMS is because swelling develops in the affected region.
Typically, DOMS symptoms do not require medical attention, and begin to dissipate after 72 hours. Symptoms are usually the most intense during the first 24 to 48 hours after exercise. There is a wide range of purported treatment options; however, as the "British Journal of Sports Medicine" and University of New Mexico researchers point out, none are proven remedies, and all have varied results. A few treatments include over-the-counter pain relievers, massage, acupuncture, yoga, compression and nutritional supplements such as vitamins C and E.
DOMS is experienced by people of all fitness levels, and is not entirely preventable. While warming up your muscles through activities such as stretching may not completely prevent soreness, the American Council on Exercise reports that it may prevent or at least reduce potential symptoms of muscle tightness. Additionally, pacing your exercise intensity in a gradually progressive manner gives your muscles the opportunity to adapt to your activity more efficiently, which also helps lessen the degree of potential symptoms. ACE also advises that healthy nutrition and hydration may help decrease the intensity of DOMS. ACE further recommends that if you exercise for more than 60 minutes, drinking electrolyte-rich beverages may help prevent muscle cramps.
If you experience severe muscle pain, weakness or spasms, you may have gone beyond the microscopic ruptures of DOMS, and have actually pulled or torn through muscle fibers, which is a muscle strain. Mild strains can usually be treated at home through the RICE method for about a week, which includes rest, the use of ice packs, compression and elevating the affected limb. Severe strains, which can be incapacitating, would require medical attention.
Also, if you experience muscle tightness in your arms and legs, along with chest pain or tightness at any time -- including post workout -- seek medical attention as soon as possible. As Harvard Medical advises, these may be symptoms of a heart attack or other medical condition.
- American Council on Exercise: Why Do Muscles Tighten Up?
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Muscle Soreness, Swelling, Stiffness and Strength Loss After Intense Eccentric Exercise
- American College of Sports Medicine: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- University of New Mexico: Treating and Preventing DOMS
- University of Missouri-Columbia: Treatment of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – Is Prevention the Answer?
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: Sprains and Strains - What's the Difference?
- Johns Hopkins: Muscle Strains
- Harvard Medical School - Harvard Health Publications: Chest Pain - A Heart Attack or Something Else?