Muscle Stiffness

Muscle stiffness is the sensation of pain or tightness in your muscles. Many people experience muscle stiffness after intense exercise or periods of inactivity. Usually, you can relieve muscle stiffness with home remedies like stretching or icing the affected area. Rarely, muscle stiffness can be a symptom of a serious infection or chronic condition.


What is muscle stiffness?

Muscle stiffness is the sensation of tight, cramped or painful muscles. You’ve likely experienced muscle stiffness at some point in your life.

Sleeping in an awkward position, exercising too hard or sitting at a computer all day can all lead to sore, tight muscles. But simple treatments can usually relieve discomfort and loosen tight muscles.

Is muscle stiffness a cause for concern?

Usually, muscle stiffness goes away without medical treatment and isn’t a major cause for concern. Stretching, exercising more frequently and improving your posture all can help relieve muscle stiffness.

Rarely, muscle stiffness can point to an underlying, more serious infection or medical condition. Muscle stiffness may be a cause for concern when it occurs along with symptoms such as:

  • Fever.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Neck stiffness.
  • Swelling.

How common is muscle stiffness?

Muscle stiffness is extremely common. Most people experience short-term (acute) muscle pain at some point in their lives. Up to 1 in 4 people experience long-lasting (chronic) muscle pain and stiffness.


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Possible Causes

What causes muscle stiffness?

Many people experience acute muscle stiffness because of:

Less commonly, muscle stiffness can point to an underlying infection or disease, like:

Muscle stiffness may also be a symptom of a chronic condition, like:

You usually have other symptoms along with muscle stiffness if you have an infection or chronic disease. See a healthcare provider if you have muscle stiffness along with symptoms like headaches, fever, fatigue, sore throat or chest pain. These symptoms could point to an infection or another condition.

Care and Treatment

How can I relieve stiff muscles at home?

Most people can relieve muscle stiffness with over-the-counter or home remedies. You may try:

  • Alternating heat and cold therapy for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
  • Massaging the tight muscle a few times a day.
  • Resting until the stiffness decreases.
  • Sitting in a warm bath to increase blood circulation.
  • Stretching throughout the day, especially before and after exercise.
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen.


How is muscle stiffness treated?

Your healthcare provider may recommend further treatments if at-home remedies don’t relieve tight muscles.

Your provider may also recommend physical therapy. A physical therapist can help you increase mobility and strength and reduce pain with a set of prescribed exercises. You may need additional treatments to target the root cause of stiffness if you have an underlying condition that causes muscle stiffness.

How can muscle stiffness be prevented?

You can take a few steps to prevent muscle stiffness, including:

  • Achieving and maintaining a weight that’s healthy for your age, sex and body type.
  • Avoiding sitting for long periods.
  • Eating a nutritious diet and drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Exercising regularly, ensuring that you warm up and cool down properly before and after exercise.
  • Optimizing your workspace and furniture so you can maintain proper posture throughout the day.
  • Stretching a few times a day.
  • Wearing proper footwear when you exercise.

What should I eat to prevent muscle stiffness?

Research shows that dehydration increases your chances of muscle stiffness and soreness. Most experts recommend you drink at least 64 ounces of water daily. You may need more, depending on your activity levels and body size.

Magnesium and calcium are also important nutrients for muscle health. Experts recommend adults under 50 get at least 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium daily. Women and people assigned female at birth over 50 and men and people assigned male at birth over 70 should aim for about 1,200 mg of calcium. Healthcare providers recommend that all adults get about 310 mg of magnesium daily.

Most people can get the calcium and magnesium they need through a balanced diet. You may want to ask a healthcare provider about supplements if getting enough calcium and magnesium is difficult for you. Common food sources of calcium and magnesium include:

  • Avocados.
  • Bananas.
  • Dairy products.
  • Dark leafy greens.
  • Fatty fish.
  • Fortified foods, like orange juice and breakfast cereals.
  • Nuts and seeds.


When To Call the Doctor

When should a healthcare provider treat muscle stiffness?

See a healthcare provider if muscle stiffness lasts more than a few days. Your provider may run tests to look for underlying causes of muscle stiffness.

You should also see a healthcare provider right away if muscle stiffness is accompanied by red-flag symptoms like:

  • Fever.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Neck stiffness.
  • Swelling.

Although rare, these symptoms can point to serious infections like meningitis.

Additional Common Questions

How can stiff and tight muscles result in back pain?

When you move, your brain sends electrical signals to the cells in your muscles, telling them to expand or contract. Likewise, those cells send electrical signals back to your brain when your muscles are damaged or tense. Your brain interprets these signals as pain. Thus, stiff or tight back muscles can result in back pain.

How can I loosen up stiff neck muscles?

Many people can loosen stiff neck muscles with at-home treatments, such as:

You may also try stretching your neck muscles. You may try movements that promote:

  • Extension and flexion: Extend your chin toward the sky, then bring your chin to your chest.
  • Lateral flexion: Bring your left ear to your left shoulder, hold for a few seconds, then repeat on the other side.
  • Rotation: Turn your head from side to side.

Throughout all neck stretches, keep your spine straight and your shoulders away from your ears. You can repeat neck stretches several times a day.

Can untreated muscle stiffness cause more serious problems?

Muscle stiffness doesn’t usually lead to more serious problems, especially with at-home treatment. Without any treatment, stiff neck or back muscles could lead to a pinched nerve. Stretching regularly can help loosen stiff muscles and reduce your risk of a pinched nerve. See a healthcare provider if you have muscle stiffness that doesn’t go away with home treatment. It could be a symptom of something more serious.

What is the difference between muscle stiffness and muscle spasticity?

Muscle stiffness is a feeling of lingering tightness or pain that interferes with your usual activities and movements. Muscle spasticity causes your muscles to tighten involuntarily, a sensation known as a muscle spasm. Spasticity is associated with several chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

What is the difference between muscle stiffness and joint stiffness?

Muscle stiffness is soreness or tightness in your muscles, while joint stiffness is a feeling of limited movement or range of motion. People with joint stiffness may be able to move their joint through its full range of motion, but the movement may require force. Joint stiffness is often a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory arthritis.

What is the difference between muscle stiffness and muscle weakness?

Muscle stiffness feels like pain or a tight sensation in your muscles. Muscle weakness is a lack of strength. Usually, muscle stiffness is short term and goes away with home treatments. Muscle weakness may be due to a lack of exercise. Or it may be a symptom of a chronic condition such as MS or myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If you’re dealing with muscle stiffness, you’re not alone. Most people experience acute muscle stiffness at some point in their lives. Nearly 25% experience long-lasting stiffness. But at-home remedies usually provide relief. See your healthcare provider if your muscle stiffness lasts longer than a few days or occurs with other symptoms.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/20/2023.

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