Increasing Exercise Can Lead to Muscle Stiffness, Cramps

Patient Expert

Last week, I had my monthly massage with Ruth. I love going to see her because (a) she's become a friend; (b) massages (for the most part) feel really good; and (c) I get a chance to analyze what's happening with my body when she hits a pressure point or finds a muscle that's really tight. This month, I asked Ruth to pay attention to my legs. "My hamstring muscles have been really tight as of late," I told her during our pre-massage discussion. "They haven't been cramping, but they feel like they are thinking about it."

So why would they have been tightening up? Ruth's guess was that these muscles were reacting to the extra mile that I've added to my daily walk with my dog. And - surprisingly - she found that my calf muscles were much tighter than my hamstrings.

So what is muscle stiffness? "Muscle stiffness is [the] feeling of tension and contraction in the muscles, that may limit normal range of motion," reported. This stiffness may be due to periods of vigorous use (i.e., athletic events, physical labor or weight lifting) or from stiffness caused by inactivity. Muscles that are found to be firm or rigid during an examination may be caused by spasms induced by overuse, injury, bleeding into the muscle, infection, extreme heat or cold, or a reaction to a bite or sting. suggested rest, massage and gentle application of cold or heat to deal with muscle stiffness due to exercise. The website also suggests stretching and toning in order to maintain muscle flexibility and to limit stiffness. Additional recommendations include regular exercise, warm baths and massage therapy.'s Becky Sheetz-Runkle noted that the stiffness can continue for several days following a workout, or can even happen by the afternoon if you exercise in the morning. "Stiffness is one result of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and is caused by tiny tears that occur in the muscle fibers during exercise," she reported. Taking 2,000 mg of vitamin C and 400 international units of vitamin E can combat muscle stiffness. In addition,'s Anna Cocke also recommends the following: omega-3 fatty acids since they are anti-inflammatories; glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate, another anti-inflammatory that also repairs connective tissue; and vitamin D.

My massage therapy also suggested that my body may need more electrolytes, which affect the amount of water in the body, the blood acidity and muscle function. The body loses electrolytes when it sweats, but replaces them when you drink fluids. Common electrolytes, according to MedlinePlus (which is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine), include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium. You can find these in foods and beverages you consume.

I'm trying to incorporate all of this information into my daily "to do" list, but sometimes my muscles like to rebel. Last night, for instance, I woke up with a muscle cramp in my calf. So what are these and what should you do about them?

MedlinePlus reports that cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions or spasms that often occur after exercise or at night. The cramps can last a few seconds to several minutes. Muscle cramps can be caused by straining or overusing a muscle, dehydration, insufficient minerals in the body, lack of blood in the muscles, malfunctioning nerves, or a spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in the neck or back.

The Mayo Clinic recommends dealing with cramps through drinking plenty of liquids every day, which can help muscles function properly and keep muscles hydrated. If you're exercising, replenish fluids at regular intervals during the activity and continue to drink water or other fluids when the activity is completed.

And if the cramps get too bad at night?   The People's Pharmacy reports that the strange home remedy of putting a bar of soap in the bed between the mattress and the bottom sheet seems to work for many people.   No one quite knows why this seems to help, but many swear by it.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Cocke, A. (2011). Supplements for muscle soreness & stiffness.

Jones, J. C. (2007). Muscle stiffness.

Mayo Clinic. (2010). Muscle cramp.

MedlinePlus. (2011). Electrolytes.

MedlinePlus. (N.D.). Fluid and electrolyte balance.

MedlinePlus. (N.D.). Muscle cramps.

Sheetz-Runkle, B. (2009). Vitamins for muscle stiffness.

The People's Pharmacy. (2005). Soap under the sheets for RLS, leg cramps.