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Stiffness: Introduction

Stiffness is a very general term for a common but abnormal condition in which a person feels a sensation of discomfort, inflammation, soreness, or pain. Stiffness is often referred to as occurring in the joints, but can also occur in muscles and other part of the body. Stiffness is a symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions. Stiffness can result from infection, trauma, malignancy, autoimmune diseases, and other abnormal processes.

Stiffness can occur in any age group or population. Stiffness can indicate a relatively benign condition, such as remaining sedentary for a period of time. Stiffness can be the result of a moderate condition, disorder or disease, such as repetitive strain injury, torn muscle or a sprain. Stiffness can also accompany serious conditions that can even be life-threatening. These include rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injury or meningitis.

Depending on the cause, the stiffness can be short-term and disappear quickly, such as when stiffness occurs after lying down for an extended period of time then resolves after moving around.

Stiffness can also occur suddenly and severely, such as the neck stiffness that happens in meningitis. Stiffness can also be chronic and ongoing over a long period of time, such as when stiffness is due to osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Stiffness can be the result of a wide variety of other conditions, including muscle strains, contusions, carpal tunnel syndrome, prolapsed disc in the back, lymphedema, cellulitis, muscle spasms, chronic back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, bed rest, depression and trauma.

Stiffness often occurs in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Other symptoms can include swelling or edema, fever, and other flu-like symptoms. Complications of stiffness can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. For more details about symptoms and complications, see symptoms of stiffness.

Diagnosing stiffness and its root cause begins with taking a thorough personal and family medical history, including symptoms, and completing a physical examination.

Making a diagnosis also includes performing a variety of other tests to help to diagnose potential underlying diseases, conditions or disorders, such as fracture, arthritis and meningitis. Depending on the suspected cause, tests can include blood tests, lumbar puncture, and imaging tests, such as X-ray, CT scan, nuclear scans, and MRI.

A diagnosis of stiffness and its cause can easily be delayed or missed because stiffness may be mild and for other reasons. For information on misdiagnosis, refer to misdiagnosis of stiffness.

Treatment of stiffness involves diagnosing and treating the underlying disease, disorder or condition that is causing it. Some conditions can be easily and successfully treated and cured, while others may require more intensive treatment and may not have an optimal prognosis. For more information on treatment, refer to treatment of stiffness....more »

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