Rigidity and Stiffness

Stiffness and rigidity are common in Parkinson’s disease (PD). Rigidity is when your muscles feel tense and tighten up without you wanting them to.

Muscle rigidity can happen in different parts of your body, including your arms, legs, neck, back, and even smaller facial muscles. Stiffness can occur on 1 or both sides of your body. When your muscles and joints are stiff, it can lead to pain and discomfort.

Who gets rigidity?

If you have PD, chances are you will have stiffness and rigidity at some point. In fact, 9 out of 10 people with PD are impacted by rigidity to varying degrees.1,2

Some may think it is tightness in the muscles or joints, while others may feel achiness or pain. For some, rigidity can happen years before a PD diagnosis, but is often attributed to the minor aches and pains that many people get as they get older.1,2

Why does PD lead to rigidity?

PD damages various areas of the brain. However, the site in the brain that makes dopamine is heavily damaged in PD. Dopamine is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that is involved in coordinating movement in the body. When dopamine levels are impacted, rigidity and stiffness can occur.3

The impact of stiffness

Having stiff muscles and joints can impact your daily life in many ways. Some days, it may only be a tight lower back. Other days, it might mean it is hard to button your shirt. Everyone is different, and rigidity impacts people with PD in different ways. Some of the ways stiffness can affect your life include:3

  • Balance, reducing your ability to swing your arms while walking
  • Sleep, making it hard to turn over or get in a comfortable position
  • Appearance, giving you a mask-like look to your face
  • Fatigue from your muscles working all the time
  • Pain from tight, tense muscles

How is it diagnosed?

During a physical exam, your doctor will test how flexible your wrist and elbow are by moving your hand and arm while you are relaxed. The doctor will look for stiffness that lasts a long time (known as lead pipe rigidity) or stiffness that only happens intermittently when you move (cogwheel rigidity).2,3

Treatment

At this time, there is no known cure for PD, and no treatments can slow or stop its progression. However, some treatments can help manage symptoms like rigidity.1-3

Stiffness often responds well to medicine, physical therapy, and exercise. This is not the case for everyone, so talk to your doctor about which options are best for you. In general, rigidity treatment includes:2,3

Many people think pain and stiffness are an expected part of growing older, but you do not have to suffer. There are treatments for rigidity that can improve your quality of life. Talk with your doctor and come up with a plan that works for you.1-3

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Written by: Katie Murphy │Last reviewed: April 2022