Muscle Contracture: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Our muscles contract and relax to ensure and facilitate movement of all sorts. However, when a muscle tightens or shortens, joint stiffness may occur and reduce the normal range of movement of the respective muscle, in which case a muscle contracture occurs. The pain and stiffness sensations that accompany muscle contractures may originate either in the muscle or in the joint that ensures the movement of the respective muscle. Severe muscle contractures can be debilitating and lead to temporary immobility.

What are muscle contractures? Muscle contractures are not lesions affecting the muscle itself, but rather temporary or permanent deformities that reduce flexibility and normal range of movement. But because they affect muscle movement, they are more simply referred to as muscle contractures. Actually, muscle contractures are a sort of defense mechanism in the sense that they prevent physical overexertion that may lead to permanent damage in the form of loss of flexibility and range of movement of the affected area.

muscle contracture causes

Muscle contractures prevent us from pushing too hard and risking serious muscle and joint damage and subsequent loss of range of movement of the affected joints. In other words, contractures are our body’s way of telling us that we have gone too far, worked too hard and strained ourselves too much. The limited use of the affected area means we need rest to recover and prevent a potential injury. There are numerous reasons and factors causing and contributing to muscle contractures.

What causes muscle contractures?

1) Strenuous physical exercise. Vigorous workout routines that may put too much pressure on certain joints can reduce mobility and lead to muscle contractures. Moreover, abrupt movements or bad exercises also contribute to contractures.

2) Not warming up. Muscle contractures are more likely to occur if we don’t warm up properly before engaging in physical exercise. Inadequate preparation for physical exercise causes the muscles to perceive even a normal amount of strain as greater than it is, pushing joints and muscles to their limits and risking injury.

3) Poor posture. One of the effects of poor posture is muscle contractures. Spending too many hours at the desk, in front of a computer or television will cause us to adopt an incorrect posture and may lead to joint stiffness and muscle contractures. Maintaining an incorrect posture during physical exercise can also cause muscle contractures. Working on the laptop in bed is the behavior that has caused me the worst muscle contractions.

muscle contracture

4) Injury. Fractures, burns, nerve injury as a result of trauma or anything that causes our joints to lose their range of movement either partially or completely can lead to contractures. For example, bone fractures, torn ligaments or tendon injury may require putting the affected area in a cast for several weeks. This reduces joint mobility and may lead to contractures. Similarly, more severe burns may prevent a normal range of movement in the joints of the affected areas and engender the same results.

5) Disuse, misuse and immobilization. Disuse refers to any reason, medical or other, that has us not moving freely. Prolonged bed rest, injury that prevents us from using a leg or arm, having a cast, immobilization, sedentarism etc. can, in time, lead to contractures. Misuse refers to not allowing the joints to engage in the full range of movement they are capable of. A knee or elbow injury or a burn near a joint may hurt and have us fearing free movement, a situation that favors joint stiffness and muscle contractures.

6) Draft and temperature extremes. Going from hot to cold without being dressed properly, standing in draft can cause a muscle contraction. Actually, catching a draft is one of the most common causes of neck pain and stiffness. Too much airflow, especially cold air, to a certain area of the body can lead to muscles tightening and cause soreness, aches and contractures. Open windows when we are sleeping, air conditioning or a fan blowing straight at us, going outside in the cold without dressing well after being inside where it’s warm, coming out from the shower in the cold should be avoided.

7) Infection or disease. Muscle contractures are common in head injuries, childhood diseases such as polio, birth paralysis due to injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke and various nerve, muscle, joint or bone infections, conditions and diseases. However, remember that contractures are not the only symptoms of such severe conditions.

Signs and symptoms

What are the symptoms of muscle contracture?
Joint and muscle pain and rigidity.
2) Limited range of movements.
3) Muscle weakness.
4) Limited use of the affected area.

Muscle contractures are, by definition, painful. When they occur, we often feel our muscles and joints stiff and every attempt at a normal range of movement is painful. Depending on the severity of the contracture and how we decide to manage it, pain may be mild and allow us to do everything we did before the contracture or severe and prevent us from lifting objects, sitting or sleeping in a certain position, adopting a certain posture for more than a few minutes etc.

Pain can go and reoccur or be present throughout the entire time. If we do not manage and treat the condition accordingly from the beginning, the pain can have us resist movement almost completely, which encourages muscle atrophy, with muscles becoming weaker. Pain can seem localized, as if it comes from a single point somewhere in a muscle or joint or feel as an extensive ache of an entire muscle or joint. The source of the pain may feel like a rigid point in a larger muscle and putting pressure on it in order to better feel it can cause it to become worse.

What to do

What helps muscle contractures heal and what causes them to become worse? Here is what we can do and avoid doing to help us get over muscle contractures easier and faster:

1) Rest. The first and most important step in dealing with a muscle contracture is resting the affected area so it has time to regain its flexibility. It is important to cease any form of intense physical exercise for two to three days and up to a week (or more, depending on what your doctor may tell you) to avoid the contracture from getting worse. However, resting does not mean becoming immobile or sedentary, just taking it easy.

2) Keep your joints moving. If the contracture is not severe, we can always massage the affected area very gently to keep blood flowing and nerves sensing and move joints in soft motions as much as they allow us to several times a day. Avoid applying too much pressure where it hurts or going past the range of motion your joints permit at the time of the contracture. If the contracture is severe, then physical therapy might be necessary. A trained physiotherapist can ensure our joints go through their full range of movements safely and stretch muscles encouraging flexibility and supporting recovery.

3) Heat treatment. What has helped me a lot when going through muscle contractures was heat treatment. I take hot showers, wear a scarf on my neck when I go outside and even when I sleep if I have a contracture in my neck, cover the affected muscle and joint and prevent it from feeling cold or use an electric blanket when the affected area feels cold. I have also successfully used an infrared lamp when my contractures were too painful and my movements extremely limited. See benefits of infrared lamp.

4) Go to the doctor. It is always important to go see your doctor whenever there is something wrong. Your doctor is also the most equipped to recommend the best pain management medication for you if you are, let’s say, allergic to certain medicines or feel you are experiencing too strong side effects to others, adjust your doses, detect a potential infection, diagnose a torn muscle, ruptured tendon etc. Your doctor might recommend various other procedures, from functional electrical stimulation to surgery.

5) Eat right and take your vitamins. Eating right is crucial for every type of recovery because the vitamins, minerals and other types of nutrients we get from our food support healing throughout the body. And because it’s unlikely we get all the nutrients we need from our diets, especially in times like these when our requirements tend to increase, we can rely on quality supplements to supply us with missing amounts of nutrients. Including sufficient protein-rich foods in our diet and eating enough healthy fats can aid muscle recovery greatly.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also important for a balanced diet and overall health. Vitamin C is great for joint health and reducing inflammation, magnesium, calcium and vitamin D are for bones, Omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids help rebuild muscle etc. Overall, preventing muscle contractures is easier than treating them which is why it’s best to learn to avoid the causes that can lead to straining our joints and muscles to such as extent.

This post was updated on Monday / July 20th, 2020 at 10:04 PM

8 thoughts on “Muscle Contracture: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment”

  1. I have this muscle contracture in my glutes. My doctor has tried several treatments. Acupuncture, dry needle therapy and several tenotomies. Nothing has worked.

    • Hello, Lesa. It could help to know some details about this muscle contracture and how and when it occurs. For example:
      – How long has it been occurring for? Do you remember if there was an injury of some sort before you experienced this muscle contracture for the first time? Or did you do some heavy lifting around that time?
      – Have you noticed if it occurs after a specific action, like bending to pick something from the floor, carrying a box?
      Is it more likely to occur at a certain time of the day, like when you wake up in the morning?
      – Do you experience any numbing or needles and pins sensation?
      – Do you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time?
      – Can you describe the pain and its location? For example, is it a sharp or dull pain and does it change in intensity? Does the pain radiate to other areas and, if so, where?

      Some remedies I’ve found useful for muscle contractures include:
      1) Massage therapy. The more, the better. As soon as you feel a muscle contraction coming, massage the area and insist for up to 10 minutes to see if it helps relieve the pain.
      2) Using an Infrared lamp. If a contracture occurs when you’re at home and have access to an infrared lamp, put the lamp heat on the affected area as soon as possible and see if it helps at least reduce the severity of the contracture. Learn more about the Properties and Benefits of the Infrared Lamp.
      3) Magnesium supplements. I’ve had great results with taking magnesium supplements for extrasystoles, blood pressure, anxiety and muscle-related problems, all the things magnesium is needed for. I got the best results with 300 mg magnesium sachets (granular powder you dissolve in water).
      4) Taking a good B vitamins complex and drinking enough water (because dehydration affects muscles too).
      I look forward to hearing from you, Lesa!

  2. This a question, not a comment. My wife has advanced Alzheimers and is quite inactive. She is developing what they call constrictures (is this the same as contractors?) and her arms are drawing up tightly to her upper body. I can no longer stretch them out straight at the elbow. Heat as in our hot tub helps but I see no lasting benefit. Any suggestions beyond straighten them out to stretch the muscles?

    • I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s health, Doug. It’d be best to talk to your wife’s doctor and inquire about alternative solutions such as physiotherapy focused on mild stretching exercises. The muscles and joints would need to be ‘warmed up’ prior to the stretching, such as with the help with gentle massage or other techniques. Your wife’s doctor/physiotherapist can better advise you on the matter and propose solutions suited to your wife’s current condition and medical requirements.

      I don’t know to what degree physiotherapy can help with the contractures and overall lack of mobility, but at least it may offer your wife some degree of relief and comfort. Unfortunately, it’s only a short term solution, similar to heath therapy, but practiced consistently, it may yield results. So talk to her doctor and see what he/she says. Hope this helps and all my best wishes to you and your wife!

  3. My wife of 80 years has Alzheimer’s and after breaking her hip and going two weeks without therapy her leg will not straiten out, our therapies have quit trying after 6 treatments tell me therapy won’t help and they recommended Hosps take over.
    What should I do? She has had Alzheimer’s now for over 6 years and can’t do anything for herself. I tried getting her therapy the day we moved her into a memory care home but buy the time the paper work and evaluations were over two weeks had lapsed and contractors has set in on one leg.They the therapist talked a good talk but did not deliver.

    • Hi, Jerry! I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult this must be for you and your wife. It seems to me that you have sought to provide the best care possible for your wife, which is admirable. Whatever avenue you choose to pursue at this point, I am sure you will make your choice with her wellbeing in mind. I am truly sorry I cannot be of help, but I trust and hope the medical professionals and specialists knowledgeable of your wife’s state of health can help you navigate this difficult time and provide the care your wife needs at this time in her life. And your being there by her side will surely make a difference, if not for her physical health, then for her emotional wellbeing. Wishing you and your wife lots of health, Jerry!

  4. My name is Kathy and I have terrible debilitating horrible painful contractions every night on my legs and and my inner thighs I have CRPS I don’t know what to do I’m at my worst end mentally and physically and I can’t hardly deal with him anymore Sometimes I have these 56 times a night some of them lasting up to 5 minutes and the muscle was in a complete not only stops when it decides to any help is it is appreciated

    • Hello, Kathy. I’m sorry to hear about your condition. I cannot even begin to image the amount of pain you’ve been through. What does your doctor say? Did he/she recommend any therapies or treatment options for you, e.g. rehabilitation through physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, topical anesthetics, neural stimulation, vitamin and mineral supplementation? Is anything working? I am not a doctor so I can’t offer you any medical advice for your condition, not to mention it’s of such complexity that only a medical professional closely acquainted with your situation may be able to propose effective treatment options for you.

      What I can tell you from my own experience with muscle contractions and contractures is that supplementation with magnesium can help. I’ve also found that potassium and B vitamins also favor muscle and nerve health. So talk to your doctor about supplementation with magnesium and possibly also potassium and B vitamins for your condition. Ask him to recommend a dosage and form of magnesium that could maybe help improve your contractions. And know that it takes some time to see results when it comes to nutrient supplementation, depending on the severity of an existing deficiency (it is estimated that about 1/3 of Americans are magnesium-deficient), the increased requirements of various nutrients (stress, disease, various medical conditions, physical exercise, mental effort all eat up magnesium and up requirements) etc.

      I’m not saying that taking magnesium, potassium and B vitamins will help you or reduce your pain. But these nutrients take care of the health of our muscles, nerves and regulate the electrical impulses from nerves that control muscles in general. It stands to reason they may help with conditions related to muscles and nerves, such as contractions and muscle and nerve pain. For example, both magnesium and potassium are electrolytes and regulate electrical impulses and nervous system activity, help muscle contract and relax via their electrolyte properties. They are usually recommended for muscle contractions, spasms, pain, pins and needles sensation etc. But again, talk to your doctor about this. Hope this helps a little and wishing you lots of health, Kathy!

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