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Why are my muscles tense?

by Natalie Whish-Wilson

We’ve all had the experience of feeling tightness in our muscles, particularly after heavy physical activity, sports, repetitive or prolonged activities or with unaccustomed use. There is plenty of advice out there as to how to alleviate tight muscles but what is actually happening in our bodies when we have this feeling of tightness?
The first dilemma is establishing what we mean by feeling tight. Are we describing stiffness in muscles, tension, aching, increased effort or restriction of movement? As with pain, muscle discomfort can be unique to the individual. For people that are hypermobile (have increased flexibility of their joints and soft tissues), there may be little challenge to place their palms on the floor (adequate muscle length), but they may still report feeling “tight” to do this. Conversely there are many great runners who have appalling hamstring flexibility, which doesn’t impede their ability to run well nor necessarily place them at greater risk of injury. Clients often describe feeling tension or knots in their neck muscles but there may no palpable tissue changes on examination.

So what might really be going on and is stretching “tight” muscles always good advice?

Muscles are supplied by nerves. Receptors within the muscles (as well as within joints, ligaments, tendons, skin etc) feed information to the brain via nerves, about the state of affairs within the body at any given time. Nerves, like muscles require a healthy state of balance in order to do their job well. This means plenty of freedom to move without compression, a decent blood supply, and a balance of chemical messengers.

When we perform static activities like typing on the computer for long periods, some muscles may not get the opportunity to move through range, relax or rest and may suffer from lack of blood flow. Physical compression of either nerves or blood vessels themselves can create the feeling of pain, tension, tightness or stiffness. This is the brains way of alerting you to a potential danger of depriving the tissues of blood flow.

 Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS, which is experienced 24-72 hours after exercise due to micro trauma and inflammatory response) makes you feel sore and tight but there may be no actual change in muscle length.

In both of these scenarios gentle movement/stretch through range, massage, light exercise or rest from the aggravating activity may well relieve the feeling of tightness or stiffness.

Muscles can also become hyper-vigilant, guarded or tense and this may not always be relieved by rest, movement, stretching or soft tissue massage. Perhaps it's the postural strategy you are using, the amount of time you are spending in a particular position or the way you perform an activity that has the nervous system a little concerned. The ongoing tension/pain you feel, is a message sent from your brain (due to danger signals from the tissues) in order to get you to change your behaviour, posture, movement or loading strategy. If the behaviour isn’t changed in a timely manner, or the tissues cannot cope with the amount of loading, the nervous system may become increasingly more sensitive to the mechanical or inflammatory danger messages coming from the tissues and continue to drive tension or pain in the muscles.

Sometimes stretching can create an increase in muscle tension. We see this sometimes when people suffer an episode of sciatica. Stretching the hamstring into a straight leg raise, creates tension on the sciatic nerve which is often already suffering from compression somewhere along its course. This may actually create pain and protective tightness in the hamstrings and gluteals.

Similarly overstretching may actually cause brief interruption of signals along the nerve, which may temporarily effect a muscles ability to contract. This may explain how aggressive passive stretching of the hamstrings prior to playing sport can lead to temporary weakness/ incoordination and propensity to knee ligament damage, particularly when sudden speed or directional change are required.

I have had many clients who perceive that their neck muscles are tight or short and there is actually a restriction in their range of head movement. On observation however, their trapezius muscles are lengthened and weak. The dropped position of their shoulder girdle is acting like an unsupported heavy weight, creating tension and reflexive guarding of the muscles to try and relieve it. It would not be my advice of choice for such people to stretch their “tight muscles”.

Often “stretching the tight muscles” is standard advice given to people indicating that the length of the muscle or joint range of movement is inadequate for a particular function (which may not be the case if you examine people properly). The jury is still divided over the benefits of static and dynamic stretching. It's effectiveness appears to be dependent on many different variables.

Science doesn't appear to support the notion that rolling around on a foam roller or deep tissue massage can “breakdown adhesions” or “release fascial restrictions” in muscles.

So why does roller massage or static stretching feel so good?

The answer could be that the brain is able to temporarily override the messages of danger (mechanical threat) coming from the tissues and dampen them down with its internal medicine chest of inhibitory chemicals. The brains ability to do this depends on all of the information coming from the whole body as well as the context of the situation. The pressure in the tissues created by the foam roller may be creating a "counter- irritant" effect. This phenomena known as DNIC (diffuse noxious inhibitory control) works a whole lot better if the person expects to gain some pain relief by doing this. The suppression of the danger signals from the body can improve movement and prevent muscle guarding and compensation strategies. The relief effect may only be temporary in some circumstances and in more chronic situations; it requires a different approach to gain a more lasting effect.

So what would be sensible advice for dealing with persistent tightness in muscles? You can never underestimate the importance of a thorough examination to try and determine what is driving the problem. Armed with this knowledge one solution might be to try to reduce both internal and external stressors that are facilitating muscle tension.

Internal Stressors may include

Our physical self- e.g. performance, posture, movement, strength, habits or activities.

Or our cognitive self -the way we think and feel about our own situation and ourselves.

External stressors may include

Our physical environment or our social situation.

There are many movement therapies devoted to the idea of improving the way we move through attention to breath, posture, alignment, control, facilitation and relaxation of muscle groups. I tend to be a fan of Pilates not only as it can be used to mimic many of our functional movement patterns but also because it requires attention to our inner selves and how we feel in our bodies as we move. Similarly the relaxation benefits of yoga have been known for decades.

Crucially in order to change a feeling such as tightness, tension or pain there needs to be a level of awareness of the factors that might be contributing to the protective behaviour of the nervous system. We need to consider the whole self particularly when trying to address persistent issues such as tightness and pain within the body.

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