Why do muscles feel tight? Does that mean they are short? That they can’t relax? And what can you do about it?
Here are some of my thoughts about why muscles feel tight and what to do about it.
Tightness Is A Feeling, Not Just A Mechanical Condition
When someone says they feel tight in a particular area, they might be referring to several different complaints. So I try to find out:
- Are they talking about poor range of motion?
- Or maybe range of motion is fine, but movement to the end range feels uncomfortable or takes excess effort.
- Or maybe the problem isn’t really with movement, but just that the area never reels feels relaxed.
- Or maybe the area feels basically relaxed, but has some vague sense of discomfort – a feeling that is unpleasant but too mild to be called pain.
This ambiguity means that the feeling of tightness is just that – a feeling – which is not the same thing as the physical or mechanical property of excess tension, or stiffness, or shortness. You can have one without the other.
For example, I have many clients tell me their hamstrings feel tight, but they can easily put their palms to the floor in a forward bend. I also have clients whose hamstrings don’t feel tight at all, and they can barely get their hands past their knees. So the feeling of tightness is not an accurate measurement of range of motion.
Nor is it an accurate reflection of the actual tension or hardness of a muscle, or the existence of “knots.” When I palpate an area that feels tight to a client (let’s say the upper traps), they often ask – can you feel how tight that is?!
I often say something like:
Ummmmmm …… no. It feels just like the surrounding tissues.
But I completely understand that it FEELS tight in this area and you don’t like it.
I don’t like the feeling of tightness either so I want to help you get rid of it. But the feeling of being tight isn’t the same thing as that area actually being physically tight. Make sense?
This actually does make sense to most people, and they find it mildly interesting. I want people to understand this because it might help them reconsider a misconceived plan they may have already developed for curing their tightness – such as aggressive stretching, fascia smashing, or adhesion breaking. So now they are willing to consider an approach that is a bit more subtle than driving a lacrosse ball halfway through their ribcage.
Why Do Muscles Feel Tight If They Are Not Actually Tight?
So why would a muscle feel tight even if it physically loose?
I think we can use pain as an analogy. Pain can exist even in the absence of tissue damage, because pain results from perception of threat, and perception does not always match reality. Pain is essentially an alarm, and alarms sometimes go off even when there is no real danger.
Perhaps a similar logic is involved in the feeling of tightness. The feeling happens when we unconsciously perceive (rightly or wrongly) that there is threatening condition in the muscles that needs a movement correction.
So what is the threatening condition that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about? Surely it is not just the presence of tension – muscles are made to create tension and we often feel tightness in muscles even when they are almost completely relaxed.
So tension is not a threat, but the absence of adequate rest or blood flow is a threat, which could cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors. So the problem that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about is not the existence of tension, but the frequency of tension or the lack of blood flow (especially to nerves, which are very blood thirsty.)
With this in mind, I think of the feeling of tightness as a variety of pain, perhaps a pain too mild to deserve being called pain. But it is definitely bothersome. And it has a certain flavor or character that motivates an interest in changing resting posture, or moving around or stretching. Which is different from certain pains, which often make you want to keep still. Maybe we could say that pain is warning us to not move a certain area, while tightness is warning us to get moving.
How Can You Cure Muscle Tightness?
I think we can probably treat the feeling of tightness in the same way we treat pain – by changing one of the many “inputs” that cause the nervous system to perceive threat in the body, such as nociception, thoughts, emotions, memories, etc.
Some pains are very obviously related to movement or postural habits. We can know this if someone says something like: “It hurts when I do this, and it hurts even more when I do more of this, and it hurts less when I do less of this.” In this case, changing movement or posture is likely to help because it will reduce the main driver of the pain – mechanical nociception caused by movement.
On the other hand, there are many other cases of pain, particularly chronic pain, that are more complex – the pain doesn’t correlate very much with certain movements or postures, but instead with other variables like time of day, sleep duration, emotional state, stress level, diet, general exercise, or some random unknown factors. In this event, it is unlikely that mechanical nociception caused by movement is the main driver of the pain, and more likely that peripheral or central sensitization are playing more of a role.
I think we can look at the feeling of tightness in the same way.
In most simple cases of feeling tight, the cause is obvious – we have been stuck in the same posture or movement pattern for too long, and our muscles need a rest or change of position to reduce the ischemia or metabolic stress that is causing nociception in certain areas. For example, if we spend hours in a car, or an airplane, or behind a computer, we will instinctively feel compelled to stretch and move, and this will usually alleviate any feelings of stiffness or yuckiness.
Of course, most clients who complain of chronic tightness have already tried and failed at this simple strategy. The feeling of stiffness remains for hours and days at a time, comes and goes as it pleases, and is less related to posture and movement.
In these cases, the driver of the discomfort may have more to do with the nervous system becoming either peripherally or centrally sensitized to the need for more blood flow in certain areas. This could happen through local inflammation, adrenosenstivity, increased sensitivity at the dorsal horn, or maybe even learned associations between certain environments (say computers) and certain sensations (e.g feeling like crap).
So how do we reduce this sensitivity?
There isn’t an easy answer to this question, because if there was, it would solve the problem of chronic pain, and no one is figured out how to do that yet. But if I’m right that the feeling of tightness is a mild form of pain, then it should at least be easier to deal with.
Below is a list of several methods people often use to address a chronic feeling of tightness, along with some thoughts about each strategy from the above perspective. You’ll notice that some of the recommendations run exactly opposite to what people often do.
We instinctively stretch muscles that have remained in a short position for a while, and this usually makes us feel immediately better.
But, as noted above, most people who suffer from chronic tightness have already tried and failed at this strategy, which suggests the issue is less about bad mechanics and more about increased sensitivity.
The problem is that many people, and indeed many therapists, will think that the failure of a few simple stretches indicates the need for a far more aggressive program.
This would of course make sense if the root of the problem was short or adhered tissues. But if the root problem is in fact increased sensitivity, then aggressive stretching might just make the problem worse. On the other hand, stretching can often have an analgesic and relaxing effect.
So is stretching a good way to cure tightness? Like with most things, I say if it feels good do it. If it doesn’t … don’t.
SOFT TISSUE WORK FOR TIGHTNESS
There are various soft tissue treatments (deep tissue massage, foam rolling, Graston, ART, IASTM) intended to lengthen short tissues, break adhesions, or melt fascia, etc. This is very likely impossible, as I and many others have pointed out.
But could these treatments decrease sensitivity and make someone feel less tight? For sure, by activating descending inhibition of nocicieption, which is a well-known effect of painful stimulation that is expected to bring health benefits.
But of course these treatments also create nociception, which tends to increase sensitivity. It’s a fine balance that depends on the individual and many other variables. Again, if it feels good do it, but it’s an option not a necessity, it’s only temporary, and you should keep in mind the reason for doing it.
MOTOR CONTROL FOR MUSCLE TIGHTNESS
Many forms of movement therapy are essentially motor control approaches – they seek to change movement, postural and breathing habits so they are more efficient, eliminate parasitic tension, develop the skill of relaxation, etc.
Habits are hard to break, but this strategy is worth a shot, especially in cases where tightness seems related to certain postures or movements. Of course, where the situation is more complex, motor control shouldn’t be expected to fix the problem on its own.
EXERCISE AND RESISTANCE TRAINING
People tend to associate strength training with becoming tighter. During exercise, muscles of course become very tense, and they may feel stiff the next day because of delayed onset muscle soreness. There is also the (false) idea that strength training makes muscles shorter and less flexible.
These concerns are unfounded. In fact, full range of motion strength training can increase flexibility, perhaps more than stretching. It creates local adaptations in muscle that may improve endurance and make them less likely to suffer metabolic distress. And exercise also has an analgesic effect and can lower levels of inflammation that cause nervous system sensitivity.
Here’s a personal anecdote. Back in the days when I did yoga I had much more flexibility, but my hamstrings always felt tight. Then I quit yoga and started doing a lot of kettlebell swings. My forward bend decreased a bit, but the feeling of hamstring tightness was GONE, even though I was working the hamstrings HARD. In its place was a feeling of functional strength and capacity, which I imagine decreased any perception of threat related to lengthening my hamstrings.
Of course if you overwork your muscles from strength training and don’t let them recover, they will get sensitive, stiff and sore. But if you work them the right amount – enough to create an adaptation and not too much to cause injury or prevent full recovery – then you will make them healthier, stronger, and yes – less stiff.
When you feel stiff, remember it is a feeling, and not necessarily a physical condition of shortness that needs an aggressive structural solution. Like other feelings, you feel it more when you are sensitive. And like other forms of sensitivity, it will go down if you improve your overall fitness, strength, awareness, motor control and health.
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Looking for alternative therapies for back pain? Osteopathy, acupuncture, and massage therapy can all help sufferers of acute or chronic pain.
“Ouch!” There it is again. Whether it’s at the base of your neck, between your shoulder blades, or nestled securely in your lower back, pain has probably affected you at some point along life’s journey.
Our aching backs
Pain has been defined as a perception that we have about the events that are taking place in or to our own body. Back pain continues to be a major health and economic problem for Canadians, especially in our thirties and forties.
One of the ways to classify lower back pain is by the duration of pain:
- acute: lasting up to 4 weeks
- sub-acute: lasting from 2 to 6 months
- chronic: lasting more than 6 months
Acute back pain
Clinically, acute low back pain can present in many ways and may start without any apparent reason at all, or it may result from a back strain. It’s typically the result of a significant physical exertion and can last from a few minutes to several weeks or months. Interestingly, the intensity of back pain may not feel equal to the type of injury sustained.
Chronic back pain
When not directly related to an injury, back pain can have other causes. Take osteoarthritis, for instance. It’s the most common type of arthritis, affecting one in 10 Canadians. It can attack the joints of the spine, resulting in chronic back pain.
Signs and symptoms
Warning signs and symptoms of back pain to watch out for, include
- limited mobility in joints
- discomfort you can pinpoint in your spine
- discomfort, pins and needles, and/or numbness in hands or feet
So where can you turn to relieve back pain? If you’re concerned about the risks associated with long-term use of some medications for low back pain, there are alternative back pain treatments that may help you reduce medication use and promote self-care.
Growing in popularity across Canada is the age-old practice of osteopathy. With its roots in the US in the 1800s, osteopathy is a natural medical practice that helps to restore function to the body by assessing and treating the causes of pain and imbalance.
Osteopathic manual practitioner Joseph Rotella says, “An osteopathic approach to treating low back pain includes assessing the mobility and related soft tissue of the spine and pelvis.” He stresses the importance of evaluating the mechanics of the organs within the abdomen and pelvis. Rotella explains that to “reduce restrictions along the whole nervous system,” low back treatment is combined with evaluation and treatment of the cranium.
A treatment will typically last 30 minutes to one hour and may include a range of techniques, including moving, stretching, and manipulating the affected muscles and joints. The goal of each session is to assess and provide treatment according to the position, mobility, and quality (vitality) of the tissues.
This ancient Chinese medicine practice involves inserting small needles at specific points on the body to treat pain and rebalance the flow of energy or life force.
“Treating the kidney meridian is a common approach for helping with back pain,” says Linda Li, a licensed traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Li works with her clients to meet their individual needs. In cases where the muscles of the back are overworked, Li says, she also treats points behind the knee and in the foot.
For long-term back pain lasting longer than six weeks, acupuncture treatments commonly consist of 10 sessions over a period of approximately 12 weeks. The number of treatments required will vary depending on the nature of the problem. “Treatment can be 30 to 50 percent more effective with the use of heat during the session,” says Li.
Massage therapy is a hands-on approach designed to optimize health by manipulation of the soft tissues of the body, involving the muscles, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
“Depending on the client’s needs and tolerance, I provide deep tissue massage, muscle energy techniques, flushing techniques, strain-counterstrain, active release techniques, and myofascial release,” explains registered massage therapist, Denice Spykerman.
Massage therapy treatments can reduce tension and pain, increase circulation, and improve flexibility. Sessions may be scheduled over a six-week period or as necessary.
Effectiveness of treatment
“An osteopathic approach is particularly effective for patients with numerous issues simultaneously,” states Rotella, given that “many patients with low back pain also complain of circulatory issues, digestive disorders, neck pain, et cetera.”
“The effectiveness of [acupuncture] treatment for low back pain depends on the patient and the symptoms presenting in their body as a whole,” says Li. “For example, low back pain is affected by emotional components as well.”
Spykerman confirms that massage therapy is effective for “muscle related issues.” “Of course,” she says, “if the pain is not of a muscular nature then the client will need to be referred to another practitioner.”
Recommendations for self-care
- Perform remedial exercises as prescribed once a strong base of mobility is established through treatment.
- Choose exercises that use the full body in “real life” settings for best effect, such as Pilates and yoga.
- Have a warm foot bath, with a cinnamon stick added.
- Learn how to do acupressure therapy to provide further self-healing.
- Perform exercises that are tailored to the individual by the therapist.
- Assume a comfortable sleep position; the best position is to lie on one’s side with pillows between the knees and under the head.
Before deciding on an effective treatment for the signs and symptoms of a pain disorder, the underlying cause must first be properly understood. Pain has been described as a gift. It certainly grabs our attention, alerting us to the need for treatment.
Ask your health care practitioner if one of these alternative treatment models can help you relieve your back pain and put the spring back in your step.
Bone up on back health
These nutrients, also available in supplement form, promote bone and spine health:
|calcium||helps to prevent osteoporosis by maintaining a healthy bone mass||dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, black beans, salmon, almonds|
|glucosamine||may relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis in patients with low back pain||supplement form often taken with chondroitin|
|magnesium||maintains muscle tone and bone density||whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, bananas, green leafy vegetables|
|omega-3 fatty acids||may reduce inflammation and pain||flaxseed and its oil, walnuts and their oil, chia seeds, hemp hearts, fish oils, wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies|
|vitamin A||helps prevent osteoporosis and accelerates the healing of fractures||dairy products, eggs, liver, cantaloupe, apricots, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach|
|vitamin C||plays a role in the development of collagen, which promotes the healing of injured tendons, ligaments, and discs; keeps bones strong||citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, green peppers, potatoes|
|vitamin D||helps improve calcium absorption for strong bones|
– See more at: http://www.alive.com/health/3-alternative-therapies-for-back-pain/#sthash.tvpFVKSU.dpuf