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Stiffness: Definition, Causes, Diagnostic Procedures, and Treatment

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Stiffness: Definition, Causes, Diagnostic Procedures, and Treatment

What is stiffness?

Stiffness is a feeling of resistance when trying to move. It can be caused by inflammation or a collection of fluid that limits space or boundaries. If stiffness is caused by inflammation in the tissues, it is usually worse after extended periods of rest or inactivity. For example, when you are in bed asleep for seven to nine hours, fluid collects due to inflammation around injured tissues in the spinal column. When you get out of bed for the day and start moving around, the fluid clears and the stiffness goes away. How long stiffness lasts and how severe it is can be an indication of how much inflammation is present.   

Muscle stiffness is when muscles feel tight and a person finds it more difficult to move than usual especially after rest. A person with stiffness may also have muscle pains, cramping, and discomfort. This is different from muscle rigidity and spasticity. With these two symptoms, the muscles stay stiff even when you’re not moving.

Muscle stiffness usually resolves on its own. Relief from stiff muscles can be achieved with regular exercise and stretching. But in some cases, muscle stiffness can be a sign of something more serious, especially if there are other symptoms present. Medical attention is needed if muscle stiffness comes along with fever, especially with stiffness in the neck, extreme muscle weakness, redness, pain, and swelling in the area with muscle stiffness, and muscle pain that began after taking new medications. The presence of these symptoms could mean there is an underlying condition.

Causes of Stiffness

Muscle stiffness typically occurs after exercise, hard physical work, or lifting weights. Also present after periods of inactivity, like when you get out of bed in the morning or get out of a chair after sitting for a long time. 

Sprains and strains are the most common reasons for muscle stiffness. Sprains and strains from activity may also cause pain, redness, swelling, bruising, and limited movement. Other common conditions that may cause stiff muscles include insect bites, infection, injury from extreme heat or cold, and anesthesia or medication used for surgery 

Stiffness of muscles with other symptoms may mean an underlying condition. In addition to sprains and muscle strains, there are other conditions that cause muscle stiffness such as bacterial and viral infections like 

  • Tetanus
  • Meningitis
  • HIV infections
  • Infectious Mononucleosis. 

But by far the most familiar source of inflammation and stiffness is Aging. Everyone gets more inflamed as they age and it happens to some people sooner and worse than others like arthritis (which may itself just be one of the effects of the inflammation.

Diagnosis

There are so many possibilities of stiffness, ranging from undiagnosed pathology to the purely psychological. Hence, a thorough medical history and physical examination are very crucial in diagnosing causes of stiffness. Asking which symptom appeared first may help determine the underlying cause. Diagnostic procedures for stiffness may include:

  • Laboratory tests
  • X-raysDamage to your bones will be visible on X-rays, but the damage caused by Osteomyelitis may not be detected on an X-ray film until it has been in your bone for several weeks. If your Osteomyelitis symptoms are more recent, you may need tests that can provide more detailed images.
  • CT scansThis test uses X-rays taken from several different angles and combines them to create very detailed cross-sectional images of your internal structures. Computed Tomography can go hand in hand with an MRI scan to effectively produce pictures that may assist the doctor in determining if you have a stroke and what is likely the cause.
  • MRI scansThis test uses strong magnets and radio waves to produce images of bones and soft tissues that are very detailed. Magnetic Resonance Imaging can be used to diagnose if you have a stroke based on your signs of a stroke, and what type of stroke you are having to effectively determine what is its cause.

Treatment for Stiffness

Specific treatments are dependent on what are the underlying causes of stiffness. Anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, are prescribed to lessen pain and discomfort caused by stiffness. Rest, massage and application of heat or cold can be of help. Heat may work better for muscle tightness. Cold may work better for swelling and inflammation. Apply heat or cold to the affected area for no more than 20 minutes. Let the area rest for 20 minutes before reapplying either option. Stretching is important for keeping muscles flexible and preventing or decrease stiffness, improves circulation, and reduces inflammation. 

Prevention

To help prevent muscle stiffness, you may: 

  • Try to practice good posture
  • Practice good use of furniture at home and at work that provides comfort and support
  • Take regular breaks
  • Get up, walk around, and stretch every so often to keep the muscles loose. 
  • Eat a healthy diet. 

Making sure you stay hydrated and are getting enough of the right nutrients to prevent muscle stiffness. Enough water in the body helps muscles work well. There are several recommendations on how much daily water intake should one person to take but many experts recommend eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other healthy drinks every day. One study found that dehydration during exercise increases the chance of muscle damage and causes more muscle soreness. Calcium and magnesium are also essentials to muscle health.


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