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Muscle stiffness

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Bernice Clark |
Muscle stiffnessMuscle stiffness is surprisingly common and most people just adapt if the symptoms are not too severe. But then our brain steps in the game and - makes things worse.


Usually, the back, neck, shoulder and hips are affected in the most cases. One of the reasons can seem silly, but it's true: our ancestors had the muscle structure created for walking around on four legs. That means that two-legged walk put additional strain on our muscles. As the years passing by all that stress accumulates so it's no surprise that stiff muscles are associated with older age.

Muscle stiffness is the condition when you feel that your muscles are tight and contracted rather than in their usual relaxed state. That muscle contraction may limit normal range of motion. Sometimes muscles feel stiff after periods of hard use, and sometimes after a longer period of inactivity.

If you suffer from muscle stiffness then you can't move quickly without pain or spasm, and you have to move slowly for some time before they get warmed up. Now, if your muscles are stiff after hard work, going to gym for example, or sleeping, that's the situation that should not worry you too much. However, if stiffness persists and you can't find such reason, go and visit your doctor. This is the most important advice we can get because stiffness can be caused by many conditions and some diseases like HIV infection, overuse syndromes, anxiety disorder, infectious mononucleosis, legionnaire’s disease, Parkinson's disease... All in all, there are 77 conditions that cause muscle stiffness!

Now, let's go a bit deeper in biology but don't be afraid, we won't go too deep. We need just a few information that are helpful to see how things work. What are the mechanisms that cause muscle stiffness and spasm?

For muscles to relax they require magnesium, and for muscles to contract they require calcium. Too much calcium or too little magnesium very much increases the tendency to spasm and contraction. Some diets from beauty magazines are low in magnesium and high in calcium, and this will increase the tendency to spasm. After some time that occasional spasm becomes stiffness.

If we suffer from muscle stiffness, than our brain steps in the game and - make things worse. The problem is so-called "learned response". The brain anticipates that the muscle will go into spasm if moved too quickly and it slows down all movements to prevent this from happening. This is the reason why some therapies include yoga and Pilates: during slow movements brain learns again that it is now safe to move freely and in any direction and it will loosen its control.

What can you do about stiff muscles? If the problem is not one of serious medical conditions, and it most probably is not because you'd be reading some other article now, you can start with a diet. Eat well-balanced diet that doesn't exclude anything. Diets "don't eat this or that for a month" are not good. Also, if you have stiff muscles, you should forget caffeine. Not lower it down, you should forget about it completely.

And now, for all of you into a lot of exercising, a very simple and important advice: stretch. Stretching tells muscles that they can go back to normal, and it also prevents them to stay in one position. Here you must be very careful: sudden stretch will tear your muscle fibres apart. Have patience and stretch for ten minutes with slow moves, don't do that in a minute or you will end up with a broken muscle.

Don't use aspirin and other similar anti-inflammatory and pain killer drugs while exercising. Pain in muscles tells you that you should stop and rest your muscles so it's not a good idea to eliminate it.

Also, a gentle massage will make enough difference for them to realise that there is a problem. Be aware: heavy massage generally makes problem worse. If you are going to massage you should go to a certified person who will gently massage you. Effective gentle massage pumps magnesium into cells and calcium out. That's why one feels so relaxed after a gentle massage. You can also benefit greatly from moving all joints through their full range of movement before weight bearing (for example before you get out of bed).

Abraham Eisenstein, M.D.

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