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Muscle Contracture

What is a muscle contracture?

A muscle contracture is a tightening or shortening of muscles. It causes joint stiffness and can happen in any joint.

What is the cause?

You may get contractures from having to stay in bed for a long time. For example, it might happen when you have a chronic illness, a serious injury, or surgery with a long recovery time. When your muscles move less, they shrink and shorten. Examples of medical problems that may lead to contractures are:

  • Stroke
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Dementia
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Head injury, especially with coma
  • Hip fracture

What are the symptoms?

Contractures keep joints from moving freely. For example, a knee contracture can make it painful and difficult to straighten your leg. This can make it impossible to walk on the leg. Over time, movement can get even more limited and painful. Your muscles get weaker and you become less flexible, which can make it harder to care for yourself and live independently.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have an X-ray or other tests.

How is it treated?

Contractures are usually treated with exercise. Exercises designed by a physical therapist can help joints to move without pain. Caregivers can help with exercises if you are not able to exercise on your own.

If you are not able to move on your own, your whole body will need to be turned often. Your arms and legs will need to be massaged to help keep good circulation and to keep your joints mobile. Massage may also help relieve pain and prevent stiffness. A physical therapist can show people caring for you how to do the massage. This treatment also helps prevent pressure ulcers (bedsores).

Splints or braces called orthotics can help stretch the muscles and joints.

Surgery may be used in extreme cases to release contractures and relieve pain, but this will not help muscles that are already shortened and weakened. If there was severe nerve damage to the area or complete paralysis of the limb, contracture release may help prevent pain, but it may not improve movement.

You may need several months of physical therapy for your symptoms to improve.

How can I take care of myself?

Stay as active as you can. Make sure you follow instructions for exercising after surgery or illness. Let your healthcare provider know right away if you are having trouble with stiffness or loss of function of your muscles.

How can I help prevent muscle contracture?

Contractures may be prevented by:

  • Changing positions often
  • Moving your muscles as often as possible, especially by bending of your joints
  • Having physical therapy
  • Using a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine, which moves your arms and legs to help you stay flexible

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