Are you feeling muscle stiffness after changing exercise routines, overusing muscles, or being physically inactive for long periods of time.
Maybe your range of motion is actually restricted, or it simply feels that way.
Do you feel Stiff? Tight? Do you think your range of motion is restricted? They’re frequently linked, but they aren’t the same, and they aren’t always the same. It is essential to know the difference between these two things.
You can state that you’re stiff. “Stiff” and “tight” are imprecise, informal, subjective phrases; they imply obnoxious feelings that indicate little sickness or minor discomfort. To put it another way, stiffness is a symptom.
It’s a typical symptom that people are continuously attempting to remedy. They’re stretching and contorting in hot yoga sessions. They’re striving to improve their posture. They visit chiropractors for “adjustments” and massage therapists for “release.”.
The majority of the words utilized in massage therapy clinics are meaningless phrases, such as “you’re really tight” the fascia fad is centered on the idea of being overly tense.
Symptoms have a variety of causes, and people frequently mistake one for another. Considering stiffness as a minor discomfort is quite beneficial.
What causes muscle stiffness?
Muscle stiffness is an uncomfortable sensation like something is wrong. Nobody feels comfortably stiff. So what’s the problem? If stiffness is a symptom, what’s the illness? There are a few possibilities. I’ve listed them in chronological order from how common they are and note that only one of these truly has a restricted range of motion.
- exercise soreness
- “muscle knots”
- overuse injury, especially tendinopathy
- arthritis, “inflammaging”
- inflammation caused by infection and autoimmune disease
- generalized anxiety disorder
- unexplained chronic widespread pain (e.g., fibromyalgia)
- medication side effects, poisoning
- dystonia (muscle rigidity and spasticity), which has many possible causes, and this is the one that can definitely involve a limited range of motion
- I saved the weirdest for last: stiffness caused by hypermobility.
It’s at least as challenging to diagnose stiffness as it is to diagnose full-blown pain, which is often very challenging and it’s like attempting to identify a “funny sensation.” and it’s just as individualistic as pain but less obvious.
It’s rarely about a range of motion
I’m a really rigid individual who has significant problems with chronic pain, and I frequently feel like I can’t move nearly as well as I’d want to.
Despite this, I can move normally. My range of motion (ROM) is entirely normal if I test myself.
People with regular or even excellent ROM can feel stiff and tight. In fact, muscle stiffness is a typical problem for people with abnormal hyper-mobility! More than 80% of persons with hypermobility disorders said they felt stiffer than the average person, or far stiffer, in a very scientific Twitter poll.
On the other hand, people with a measurably low range of motion may genuinely feel just fine, with no stiffness at all.
Why such variety? Most likely because stiffness, like pain, is an unpredictable sensation that our brains overprotectively impose on us for reasons we are frequently unaware of.
There are a few circumstances that limit your motion (more about dystonia below), but the majority of persons afflicted with those issues do not discuss their problems as “stiffness.” It would be like complaining about the heat in your house while it’s burning down.
Symptom of muscle stiffness
The symptom of muscle stiffness is almost always felt within normal ROM, whether it’s large or little. When you get up from a chair, you can feel stiff – an action that isn’t limited by really poor flexibility.
When you’re tired after a hard workout, you can stretch just as far as usual — but it will hurt more, and several individuals would describe it as stiffness rather than painful or harsh.
But stiffness is an unreliable symptom, and most people who feel restricted think they are genuinely tight. Few are correct. Some individuals do have abnormally restricted ROM, but it’s uncommon, and even when it does, it doesn’t always indicate feeling tight. Even if your range of motion is short but healthy, you may never feel as if something is wrong with it.
If your ROM is restricted by natural biological variation, pushing at the extremity of the range is a neutral sensation — it doesn’t sense like there’s an issue, so it isn’t “stiff.” It’s more like being stopped or pulling too hard.
“Normal” range of motion is almost meaningless
The only objective indication of flexibility is a range of motion. It can be measured with a protractor. Limited ROM may be verified in joints that are unable to move as far as they “ought” to be able to do so.
Which is to say, how far? Because the range of natural variation is so extensive, human averages are almost useless. Accurate measurement might be how much you want or need a joint to bend — for example, gymnasts require more ROM than accountants do.
However, a perceived or desired need for ROM is not an acceptable standard, either. Because many people believe that their range is lesser or more “abnormal” than it actually is and because they think that a more excellent range is preferable to what they have now.
Abnormality is normal. Humans have an enormous amount of non-pathological anatomical variation. There are several fascinating examples.
Flexibility isn’t as great as people make it out to be
The ability to do the splits is not particularly useful. Flexibility (and stretching as a cure) is frequently over-rated. Men’s hamstrings have considerably less natural ROM than women’s in many cases. This does not keep them back other than their inability to touch their toes, but men continually complain about their lack of flexibility.
The martial arts appear to value flexibility, and it can undoubtedly be a powerful asset, but it isn’t always the case. The most memorable martial artist I’ve ever worked with was also one of the least flexible.
The most apparent causes of acute stiffness
We get stiff when we’re trapped in a familiar situation: the first phases of a cold or flu, as well as the discomfort that follows an extensive exercise session (delayed onset muscle soreness), or when our joints and tendons have succumbed to overuse injuries such as patellofemoral syndrome or plantar fasciitis.
It’s unclear what causes exercise soreness, but it is caused by tissue damage of some sort.
All of these issues are associated with actual pain as well as stiffness. We may conclude that some stiffness is connected to mild tissue irritation.
Many people are stiff without any apparent reason. So, what else might be causing it? In addition to the obvious reasons, stiffness can have a lot of different causes.
The Muscle stiffness of aging: “inflammaging” and arthritis
How could irritation in tissue be caused without a visible source? Chronic mild to moderate tissue inflammation may have several causes, and it’s more common and long-term than most professionals realize.
However, age is the most common cause of inflammation and stiffness. As we get older, everyone becomes more inflamed. This is known as “inflammaging,” which I did not coin — though it’s true (I’m not making this up). It affects some individuals more quickly and severely than others, such as arthritis (which may result from inflammation itself).
It’s essentially just a lesser form of what is more apparent and dramatic with inflammatory arthritides (super-arthritis caused by immune system malfunction).
This is most likely why most musculoskeletal stiffness occurs in people over their second or third decade of life.
However, many young individuals feel stiff. What could be the reason? There may still be some options, but muscular knots are one of the most likely.
Muscle knots (myofascial trigger points)
When irritated, some tissues may cause stronger feelings of stiffness, and muscle is a good example. But why would muscle become irritated other than from a strenuous workout?
There’s one big culprit for younger folks who feel stiff (and can’t just blame “inflammaging” ): the prevalent condition known as “muscle knots,” which are technically called “trigger points.”
Trigger points are a type of painful cramp in the muscles. It’s unclear if they’re actual muscle tightness, but they might be since micro cramps are one of the most popular theories.
On the other hand, that theory is contentious and old, and trigger points may be entirely neurological or physical in nature. So whether their extensibility is affected or not, trigger-pointy tissues will feel firm regardless.
It’s uncertain whether trigger points are caused by actual muscular tightness. They may be because the most popular theory is that trigger points are micro cramps. That idea, on the other hand, is outdated and contentious, implying that trigger points could be purely neurological or physical sensations.
So tissues that feel like they’re pointing can either resist stretch or have no effect on stretch when triggered; they will feel hard either way.
Regardless of the technique, these patches of soft tissue are sensitive to pressure for no apparent reason, and they’re incredibly prevalent.
The pain is merely the tip of an iceberg in which every point that really hurts (an “active” trigger point) has more that is slightly unpleasant (a “latent” trigger point). Around either type of trigger point, there is usually a diffuse halo of stiffness and tightness.
This article is mostly about everyday muscle stiffness, not disease-induced stiffness. There is a grey area between those two positions, however. Some pathologies involve genuine range-limiting muscular rigidity and spasticity – dystonia – adding a new spin on garden variety stiffness.
Dystonia has several meanings. It’s one of two basic types of involuntary contractions, along with tremors. Many subtypes of dystonia are not similar to muscular or joint stiffness. Major examples include:
The most typical example of frequent dystonia is torticollis (wry neck), which no one would confuse with ordinary stiffness because it involves an abnormal neck posture.
Dystonia may be caused by head injuries, tumors, and infections.
Neck dystonia can be caused by both meningitis and polio.
Examples of Dystonia
But some less severe dystonias blend in with typical pains and aches. Here are a few examples:
If a person’s spinal cord is impinged or irritated, they can get dystonia, which feels similar to ordinary stiffness but isn’t different from what you’d feel the afternoon after a workout — except that you didn’t exercise. Although these issues appear to be dramatic, these issues are somewhat subtle and are under-diagnosed.
Impinged or irritated spinal cords can cause dystonia, which feels similar to general stiffness but is not as apparent as the day after a workout — except that you did not exercise. Although these issues appear to be dramatic, they may be surprisingly little and underdiagnosed.
Moderate dystonia is often induced by the withdrawal from some tranquilizers, and it may continue for months or even years.
Dystonia may go unnoticed for many years during the early stages of certain illnesses. A severe case of Parkinson’s disease, for example, might be unusual. Still, some people suffer from tight muscles for an extended period(years) before the condition becomes severe enough to diagnose.
The most frequent form of muscular dystrophy is Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. Milder cases may go unnoticed for years, causing various musculoskeletal problems, including stiffness and dystonia.
So, how can you tell if you have dystonia rather than a sensation of stiffness? It’s not simple, and it might not be easy. However, people with dystonia-based stiffness typically experience genuine restriction in range of motion and, frequently, indications and symptoms of some other disease that become more apparent over time.
Stiff-person syndrome? For real
There is an(extremely rare) disease characterized by stiffness named stiff-person syndrome.
It’s a rare neurologic disease, most likely autoimmune in nature, characterized by stiffness in the trunk and limbs, an abnormally stooped posture, and spasms triggered by stressful or startling events (a severe case of dystonia with a specific, rare cause). It has nothing to do with common muscular stiffness; it’s just an odd and fascinating nightmare fuel for hypochondriacs!
Contracture: the ultimate stiffness
Contracture is a persistent shortening or shrinkage of tissue. Many individuals will never have any significant contracture, as it’s generally connected with pathological spasticity – clenching so severe and continuous that you “get stuck like that.”
Frozen shoulder is one of the most common musculoskeletal problems caused by a genuine contracture.
People who have frozen shoulders are, without a doubt, mechanically stiff. (However, there is also evidence that at least some frozen shoulder instances are spasticity, a clenching shoulder.)
Again, there is nothing comparable to contracture in most people. Contrary to popular thought, healthy anatomy does not suffer in any meaningful way from connective tissue “adhesions” or “scar tissue.”
These are the pseudo-scientific hallucinogenic fantasies of an industry that makes money by offering “release,” a simple sales pitch to those who feel prohibited.
Fibromyalgia is a disabling chronic pain syndrome that affects approximately 100 people. Its non-specific symptoms are frequently mistaken with (or linked to) various other ailments. Controversy, stigma, quackery, and unscientific studies surround fibromyalgia-like an obnoxious stench. Only a few limited treatment choices exist, including exercise and strict sleep habits.
People who have fibromyalgia frequently feel stiff. Diffuse pain is often associated with stiffness.
Because fibromyalgia is unexplained (by definition), it’s possible that some cases involve restricted mobility and/or muscular tightness. However, the sensation of being slightly sore all over is more likely to be confused with uncomfortable movement.
Dystonia is actually a recognized cause of anxiety disorder. When we are worried, our bodies tighten up, and if that emotional condition persists and worsens, it becomes a sickness, causing the dystonia to become entrenched.
However, I believe psychogenic stiffness may be even more subtle. Maybe if your emotions are keeping you bound, your mind has ways to express that feeling in the flesh as well.
Perhaps stiffness is a sort of self-expression, a frequent embodiment of many distinct types of dissatisfaction. The conversion from a mental state to a physical one is somatization, and we aren’t quite as far out in the left-field here as it appears.
It’s possible that psychosomatic illness is more prevalent and severe than we realize, and the milder varieties are thus likely widespread.
We already know that bad posture, mood, and even pain sensitivity can affect one another — the “power pose” phenomenon. It’s not much of a step to assume believing you’re stiff will make you feel that way—even without frank dystonia.