Stiffness: what is it, and what can you do to relieve it?

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Chances are that at least once in our lives we have dealt with annoying stiffness. For example, if you have been out of sports for too long, it is normal to feel aches all over your body after your exercise routine.

This muscle pain experienced as a result of micro-tears in the muscle fibres can significantly hinder daily activities

Although the pain caused by stiffness is difficult to alleviate, there are some medications and measures that can be considered to achieve it. In this article, we will discover how to combat stiffness.

what is stiffness?

Stiffness is the inflammation and discomfort felt due to micro-tears of muscle fibers, which occurs during physical training or by performing activities that require muscle overexertion.

In such a way that, these small ruptures of muscle microfibers, caused when the muscle is worked beyond its capacity, are usually accompanied by inflammations. Stiffness is also known as delayed onset muscle soreness

Muscle dehydration and loss of some minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, are directly related to the onset of stiffness

Stiffness affects almost everyone throughout their lives and occurs when physical activity begins or continues

What are the causes of stiffness?

The cause of stiffness is muscle overuse. This increase in muscle work occurs when a person begins to do sports or physical activity, or also, when they restart their exercise routine after a period of inactivity

The mechanisms that generate the pain of stiffness are not entirely clear. At present, there is evidence that it is related to the development of maximum strength series and its appearance is more frequent in musculatures that are not specialized for some type of exercise or movement

It is also known that stiffness appears in contractions in which the muscle is elongated.

How long does stiffness last?

In general, the pain caused by stiffness usually appears within 24 hours, and becomes more severe after 48 hours. In most people, stiffness can last between 5 and 10 days maximum.

However, this period varies depending on the muscular recovery of each person and the quality of the treatments and measures applied to reduce them.

what are the symptoms of stiffness?

According to Dr. Pedro Manonelles, president of the Spanish Society of Sports Medicine, the clinical manifestation that defines stiffness is centered on:

  • Muscle pain located in the distal parts, where the union of the muscle with the tendon is located.
  • Decreased range of motion and strength in the affected area.
  • Sensation of stiffness.
  • Swelling.
  • Spasm.
  • Hypersensitivity of the affected musculature.

What treatment relieves stiffness?

There is a set of measures that can be used to alleviate the pain generated by stiffness, among them the following can be mentioned:

  • Stretching. Doing gentle stretching of the quadriceps and calf muscles to remove them can be effective for those who exercise frequently. This should be done at times and gently during the course of the day, so that the muscle remains active and gradually gain some elasticity.
  • Cryotherapy. The application of cold is effective in relieving them, since it is a problem that involves inflammation of the muscle fibers. For this reason, it is recommended that after practicing a sport, a shower with cold water be taken, or ice be applied to the affected area for a few minutes. The hot and cold shower can also activate blood circulation.
  • Massage with lavender oil. The essential oil of lavender has a muscle relaxing effect that benefits muscles with stiffness, as well as when there are contractures. Mixing olive or almond oil with a few drops of lavender essential oil and massaging the area gently, can help in the early recovery of muscle discomfort.

can I include some drugs in the treatment for stiffness?

Of course you can include the application of some drugs to treat stiffness.

In case of persistent and severe pain, under medical prescription, you can resort to the use of creams with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, in order to relieve the affected area and reduce discomfort.

Among the creams and products that can be useful to treat pain caused by stiffness are:

  • Reflex spray. It is a topical analgesic and anti-inflammatory. It is effective for mild muscle and joint pain, providing local and symptomatic relief to the affected area
  • Arnica creams and gels. When gently massaged with these arnica-based creams and gels, it can greatly relieve pain.

what else can I do to relieve stiffness?

When there is stiffness, the affected muscle fibers have obviously lost a lot of water, as well as some minerals. Therefore, for a faster recovery, it is necessary to hydrate well, drinking at least 1.5 liters of fresh water a day, as well as juices, broths, infusions and teas.

On the other hand, diet plays an important role in the recovery from stiffness. Consuming more foods containing magnesium and potassium is best, since the muscles need these nutrients in order to return to their normal state

Some of the foods rich in magnesium are nuts, chard and spinach, some fruits, such as apricots, pineapple, kiwi, avocados and papayas, as well as soybeans and cereals. Bananas have this mineral and also contain a lot of potassium.

On the other hand, applying neuromuscular bandages helps to reduce the painful sensation, because they favor the drainage of these inflammatory processes inside the muscle

Finally, it is a priority to respect the rest times of the muscles after exercising, so that they have an adequate recovery margin.

In fact, these are inevitable when performing high-intensity exercise, as we have seen. However, it is possible to diminish their effects with stretching and other methods to accelerate muscle recovery.

German Fuertes Otero
German Fuertes Otero
CEO at M.D. from Stanford Medicine: Stanford, California, US, M.Sc. from University of Cambridge: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK and University of Oxford: Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK. PhD at Harvard University Harvard Catalyst: Cambridge, MA, US.

Aunque pueda contener afirmaciones, datos o apuntes procedentes de instituciones o profesionales sanitarios y la información contenida en PharmaSalud esté redactada por profesionales en medicina, recomendamos al lector que cualquier duda relacionada con la salud sea consultada con un profesional del ámbito sanitario.

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