Waking up feeling stiff and tight is a common complaint, especially as we age. It can also occur after a workout, heavy labor or periods of inactivity. While there are some medical conditions to be aware of, muscle stiffness can often be treated at home.
What causes muscle stiffness?
Muscle stiffness that results from exercise
or heavy physical labor is due to the tiny tears in the muscles caused by strain. These tears are a normal side effect of challenging your body and are usually nothing to be concerned about. Sometimes this stiffness is combined with muscle soreness t
hat lasts a few hours.
If you have muscular imbalances due to inadequate exercise technique or bad posture habits
, this can lead to tightening and shortening of some muscles, leading to stiffness. Poor posture can also cause muscle knots that cause adhesions in your tissues—primarily the fascial tissues
—which are the tissues that hold your muscles, bones, organs and nerves in place. Getting your posture on track and making sure you are lifting and exercising with proper technique will help.
Another common cause is the lack of activity
. Being physically inactive can lead to stiffness and tightness that is even more noticeable in the morning or after getting up from the couch after a long period of lounging.
Often, stiffness after inactivity gets more pronounced as we age. The reason for this is likely inflammation
, which increases as we get older. Being overweight can also contribute to stiffness, as can being on cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins.
How to prevent and relieve muscle stiffness
Depending on the cause of your stiffness, there are multiple ways to treat it.
Stretching in the morning or after a workout can help alleviate and prevent muscle stiffness. Try these stretches for relief:
- Cobra pose: lie on your stomach with your feet hip-width apart and your hands under your shoulders. Spread your fingers and rest your forehead on the ground. Lift your head, chest and stomach off the ground by pushing into your hands as you inhale. Your pelvis should remain on the floor. Hold for 10 deep breaths before exhaling and luring back to the starting position.
- Piriformis stretch: lie on your back with your legs out in front of you, bend your left leg, placing your foot on the floor near your bottom. Bend your right leg and place the outside of your right ankle on the top of your left knee; use your right hand to reach through the hole created between your legs, grasping your left shin and pulling it toward your chest. Pull gently, hold your left leg, and feel the stretch in your right hip before slowly lowering your legs back to the floor and switching sides.
- Cat/Cow: get on all fours on the ground and inhale, extending your spine and letting your belly and shoulder blade sink toward the floor. Exhale, rounding your spine and tucking your tailbone under. Repeat, alternating between the two motions for 30 to 60 seconds.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help mitigate the worst of stiffness. Ibuprofen
can help relieve inflammation, or you can try a rub such as tiger balm
. Although these often mask the symptoms and it’s best to practice stretching and maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.
Topical and ingestible anti-inflammatory supplements can help relieve stiffness. A popular choice is arnica gel, cream
. Joint support supplement formulas
may also help, as can herbal products like boswellia serrata,
which has been clinically researched to improve joint stiffness
is another well-researched choice for helping relieve stiffness due to exercise and other causes. The root extracts can help address inflammation caused by strenuous exercise while supporting a healthy inflammatory response.
, either done professionally, by a partner, or on your own, may help relieve tension and stiffness, especially if it is due to stress. Massage that helps break up the knots and adhesions you may have can also ease stiffness. If you are performing massage yourself, try using a foam roller
or muscle roller
Check your desk set up while you work, and try setting your workstation up with the following tips in mind:
- Place a large book or object under your computer so that it is at eye level.
- Both of your feet should be flat on the floor. Your chair should also have armrests and be height-adjustable.
- Use pillows behind your lower back or along your spine to support you. Your back should be touching your chair or the pillows.
- Your keyboard and mouse should be able to be used in natural motions without straining or stretching your shoulders, elbows, or wrists. This may mean you need a separate keyboard to use with your laptop.
- Use a headset for phone calls and avoid stretching your neck to hold a phone in place.
- Keep other documents at eye level by setting up a stand-up clipboard next to your computer.
- Get up and stretch every hour or more often. Try to perform some of your work while standing, keeping the same postural tips in mind as when you are sitting.
When to see a doctor
Some serious medical conditions can cause muscle stiffness. Some reasons for stiffness that require medical attention include:
- Sprains and strains
- Insect bites
- Infections such as tetanus and meningitis
- Lyme disease
If you are feeling pain,
increased intense stiffness or signs of infection, or even if you are just concerned, see your doctor.