Medical News Today: What causes muscle soreness and stiffness?

Muscle stiffness is when the muscles feel tight and difficult to move, particularly after resting.

Muscles stiffness can also be accompanied by pain, cramping, and discomfort.

It is usually not a cause for concern and can be treated with home remedies and stretching.

In this article, we look at some causes of muscle stiffness, as well as home remedies and when to see a doctor.


There are a variety of things that can cause muscle stiffness, including:


Woman in exercise and sports wear with muscle stiffness in back.
Alongside sprains and strains, exercise or physical stress may cause muscle stiffness.

A common cause of muscle stiffness is exercise or hard physical labor of some kind.

Often, stiffness can occur when someone starts a new exercise routine or program or has increased the intensity and duration of their routine.

When this happens, the muscles are required to work harder, and this causes microscopic damage to the muscle fibers, resulting in stiffness or soreness. This type of injury is sometimes referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Any movement can cause DOMS, but it is commonly caused by:

  • jogging or running downhill
  • using weights
  • doing squats
  • doing push-ups

Sprains and strains

The most common cause of muscle stiffness is a sprain or strain, which can affect both the muscles and ligaments.

A strain is when the muscle fibers are stretched or torn. Strains are particularly common in the legs and lower back.

A sprain is when the ligaments have been stretched, twisted, or torn. The ligaments are the bands of tissue around the joints that connect the bones together.

Common areas prone to sprains include:

  • knees
  • ankles
  • wrists
  • thumbs

Other symptoms associated with sprains and strains include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • tenderness
  • redness

Polymyalgia rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica causes muscle pain and stiffness. It usually affects the upper body, including the shoulders, neck, and arms. It also commonly affects the hips.

The average age of a person with polymyalgia rheumatica is 70, and some people do not develop it until they reach their 80s. What causes the condition is unknown.

Additional symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • difficulty putting on clothing
  • problems changing position, such as getting out of a chair or a car

Bites or stings

Infected mosquito bite on forearm.
Insect bites or stings may cause muscle stiffness, especially if they become infected.

Insect bites and stings can sometimes cause muscle stiffness. Bites or stings may also cause a red, swollen lump on the skin, which can be itchy and painful.

Bugs that commonly bite or sting and may cause muscle stiffness include:

  • wasps
  • hornets
  • bees
  • horseflies
  • ticks
  • mosquitoes
  • fleas
  • spiders
  • midges

Symptoms of a bite or sting will usually improve within a few days, but some people have allergic reactions that may require medical attention.

Stiffness after an insect bite can also be associated with more serious conditions, such as Lyme disease, malaria, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These conditions will also cause other symptoms, such as fever and malaise.


Some infections cause muscle stiffness in addition to other symptoms. These infections include:

  • tetanus, a bacterial infection usually associated with dirt or soil
  • meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord
  • HIV
  • Legionnaires’ disease
  • polio
  • mononucleosis or mono
  • lupus
  • influenza or the flu


Some medications can cause muscle stiffness. Muscle stiffness is a common side effect of statins, or drugs prescribed to lower cholesterol.

Anesthetics used before surgery can also cause a person to experience muscle stiffness during the hours and days that follow.

Additional causes

Other things that may lead to occasional muscle stiffness include:

  • a lack of daily physical activity
  • being overweight
  • having a poor diet
  • not sleeping properly
  • being in a cold or damp environment

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When to see a doctor

Most cases of muscle stiffness will go away on their own or with the aid of home remedies, but prolonged or frequent stiffness can sometimes be a sign of an underlying condition.

If someone is experiencing muscle stiffness along with additional symptoms, such as fever, pain, dark urine, or swelling, they should speak to a doctor.

If a person is experiencing stiffness after an insect bite or sting, they should speak to a medical professional, especially if they have allergy symptoms.

People should always speak to a doctor about any bothersome side effects of medications they are taking, including muscle stiffness.

It is important for a person to tell the doctor about all the symptoms they have, not just muscle stiffness, in order to get an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment and home remedies

If muscle stiffness is a symptom of an underlying condition, a person will work with their doctor to make a treatment plan. A doctor may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to reduce pain and discomfort.

Over-the-counter painkillers usually work for pain relief, although stronger medications may be prescribed if necessary.

If a medication is causing stiffness, a doctor may be able to adjust the dose or prescribe an alternative.

For most cases of muscle stiffness, there are some simple home remedies for relief. These include:

  • resting until the body repairs
  • using heat or ice packs, or alternating between each
  • stretching to improve flexibility and circulation
  • taking a warm bath or shower to promote blood circulation
  • massaging the affected areas

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Man sitting down stretching his legs and hamstrings before exercising.
Regular exercise, alongside stretching and warming up before exercise, may help to prevent muscle stiffness.

There are also some simple changes people can make to their lifestyle to prevent getting muscle stiffness. These include:

  • exercising regularly
  • warming up and down before and after exercise
  • stretching the muscles
  • wearing the correct footwear during exercise
  • wearing warm clothing in cold weather
  • practicing good posture
  • ensuring furniture at home and work gives comfort and support
  • avoiding long periods of inactivity


Staying hydrated and eating a varied, nutritious diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and can also help reduce the chance of muscle stiffness.

To stay hydrated, a person should drink plain water every day, try herbal teas, or add fruit slices to sparkling water.

Research has shown a link between muscle stiffness and dehydration, so a person should take breaks and stay hydrated while exercising.


Muscle stiffness will usually go away on its own in a few days. In chronic or recurrent cases, making simple lifestyle changes may help treat and prevent muscle stiffness.

If muscle stiffness is a symptom of a more serious underlying condition, the outlook will vary depending on the cause. A person should speak to their doctor if they are concerned about unexplainable or long-term muscle stiffness.

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