Muscle Contracture: Symptoms. Types, Treatment & Prevention

A muscle contracture is characterized by excessive muscle stiffness or contraction, which means the muscle is unable to relax. Contractures can affect different parts of the body, such as the neck, back or thighs, and are more likely to occur after exercising intensely, making a sudden movement, sleeping poorly, or from excessive body tension caused by stress.

Contractures cause pain, discomfort and often limit movements. In most cases they can be easily palpated by placing your hand over the muscle, where sore and rigid tissue can be felt.

Generally, some simple measures can be done at home to improve pain and discomfort, such as applying heat to the area or massaging the affected muscle. However, if pain does not improve, you should see a doctor for assessment and treatment.

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Common symptoms

The main symptoms of a muscle contracture include:

  • Pain and discomfort at the site of the contracture
  • Appearance of a small ball or lump in the region
  • Tingling in the area
  • Decrease in strength
  • Difficulty moving the affected area

Symptoms of muscle contracture can range from mild to intense, and can vary depending on the type, or location, of the affected muscle.

Also recommended: Stiff Person Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Types of contractures

Muscle contractures can be classified according to the muscle that is affected. The most common areas for contracture include: 

1. Lumbar contracture

Lumbar muscle contracture affects the lumbar back, or lower back. It can occur due to efforts and activities that overload the muscles in this area, such as poor posture at work, inadequate sleeping posture, lifting a heavy object awkwardly, strenuous effort during exercise or sudden movements.

This type of contracture begins with slight discomfort in the lower back that can gradually worsen, causing intense pain that interferes with daily activities. Symptoms of lumbar contracture typically improve within a few weeks.

2. Cervical contracture

Cervical muscle contracture affects the neck and characterized by stiffness in the scapular muscles or trapezius scapular muscle. It can occur due to muscular injuries from carrying excessive weight on the shoulders (like backpacks or handbags), not warming up before exercising, or from muscle weakness or stress.

This type of contracture can cause intense neck pain that can sometimes radiate to the arm and lead to tingling, reduced arm strength or difficulty moving the head, neck or arm.

3. Shoulder contracture

Shoulder contractures affect the trapezius or rhomboid muscles and can occur due to stress, tiredness or poor posture. Common activities that lead to shoulder contractures include spending a long time in front of the computer and keeping your shoulders raised for prolonged periods. This type of contracture can lead to pain in the left or right shoulder, which can make arm movement more difficult.

4. Calf contracture

A calf contracture affects the gastrocnemius or soleus muscles in the calf, and can occur due to excessive physical exertion in sporting activities such as running or football. It is usually the result of lactic acid accumulation, which is produced by the muscles during physical exercise, This can also happen due to dehydration and abnormal electrolyte levels.

This type of contracture causes pain and muscle spasm  that can become hardened and form a palpable lump.

5. Thigh contracture

A thigh contracture can affect the muscles on the front, back or side of the upper leg and can occur due to physical activities such as running, football or weight training. It is usually the result of lack of stretching and warming-up before exercising, previous muscle weakness, fatigue and gait imbalances.

This type of contracture can cause muscle pain and stiffness and, in more serious cases, loss of mobility and reduced ability to exercise.

6. Back contracture

Back contractures can affect any region of the back and generally occurs due to poor posture from sitting in the same position for a long time at work or driving, or from standing for prolonged periods. Poor posture habits cause shortening of the muscles and increase the risk of having back contractures.

This type of contracture can cause muscle stiffness, pain and the formation of a lump in the muscle that can be felt on palpation.

Treatment options

Treatment for muscle contractures can be done at home and includes:

  • Take a very hot water bath, allowing the stream of hot water to fall directly on the contracture if possible;
  • Apply a hot water bottle or heated damp towel on the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day;
  • Massage the contracture with firm, circular movements using a moisturizing cream or relaxing essential oil, especially if you feel a lump;
  • Stretch the effected area. Although they may initially cause some discomfort, they will help to relieve tension and help to relax the muscle.

When muscles are severely fatigued and cause muscle tension and recurrent contractures, an anti-inflammatory ointment can also be applied.

Cases that do not respond to previous measures should be assessed by a doctor or orthopedic surgeon to prescribe muscle relaxants or oral anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen or diclofenac. These remedies can help to relieve tense and contractured muscles, and also help to relieve pain and promote better sleep and rest, which will also contribute to recovery.

If the contracture still does not resolve and the symptoms persist for more than 7 days, you should go back to the doctor or see a physiotherapist, as more serious contractures requires medical monitoring and physiotherapy.

Signs of improvement

Signs of contracture improvement are pain relief, increased range of motion and decreased painful points in the affected region. The muscle becomes more malleable and less painful.

Signs of worsening

Signs of worsening that may occur are the persistence of the contracture, which becomes larger and more painful, and scar tissue formation n the area of the contracture, which can only be resolved with physiotherapy. Depending on the location of the contracture, pain may radiate to other areas, and there may be a tingling sensation if there is nerve involvement.

Contractures may worsen when treatment is not followed correctly and when the cause of the contracture has not been eliminated, which is why it is important to rest during treatment.

How to prevent

To prevent muscle contractures, be sure to:

  • Warm up before exercising
  • Stretching after exercising
  • Sleep with a low pillow or no pillow if you sleep on your back or side
  • Avoid stressful activities and conditions
  • Correct your posture and always walk or sit with your back and torso straight
  • Avoid sudden movements or excessive physical exertion
  • Do not cross your legs while sitting for long periods of time
  • Stretch at least twice during working hours if you work in prolonged seated positions

A sedentary lifestyle also contributes to the emergence of muscle contractures, which is why it is recommended to engage in some form of regular physical activity, such as swimming or pilates. These activities can help to strengthen your muscles and relieve accumulated stress and tension.