What’s causing my muscle tightness?

Muscular tightness is one of the disruptions to normal movement and if not managed well can lead to possible injury. Identifying your tightness and using specific strategies will help relieve tension.

One of the main issues patients struggle with is muscular tightness. They get a feeling of pain or tightness and an inability to relax the muscle.

What is tightness?

When looking at patients I need to find out if they have mechanical stiffness or the “feeling” of tightness or a combination of both, as this would direct my treatment plan.

Is the range of movement limited? does it have a soft or hard end feel? Are movements a struggle at end range, feeling heavy? What’s the rest feeling like, is it a constant tightness?

While we can have mechanical tightness of a joint or muscle, there are also the “feelings” of tightness. You might get your hands to the floor with your legs straight and feel the hamstrings tightening. While another person could do the same, get to their knees and not have tightness.

What causes the feeling of tightness?

Tightness is a sensation like many others, including pain. What we understand from pain is that this is not always brought on physically, but also by the perception of threat.

pathway-of-a-pain-message-via-sensory-nerve-in-injured-muscle,2324600

So like pain, tightness is a protective mechanism from the central nervous system to avoid danger. On a number of levels it detects stressor’s that expose the whole body or specific region to threat.

Examples of this…..

  • Prolonged sitting, without movement we often notice tightness in certain areas, possibly through reduced oxygen supply and increased metabolic toxicity.
  • Stressful situations cause rising cortisol levels and increased activity of the Vagus nerve leading to muscular tightness.
  • Repetitive movement over a period of time causes increased tension.
  • Posture muscle tightnessInjury or pre-existing weakness can cause a guarding response from the nervous system.

Using tightness as a warning sign for these potential threats might allows us to acknowledge the situation and quickly act upon it.

What will help my tightness?

Like all movement patterns, we improve with practice. The same goes for muscle tightness. If we regularly bombard it with neural messages to remain tight we develop trigger points and chronic tightness through a process called central sensitisation. Which makes the tissues more sensitive to pain and tightness.

If we can regularly supply our nervous system with input that is non-threatening we can slowly help desensitise the muscle. But this takes time and regular repetition.

Stretching

Most people with tightness, especially after prolonged rest feel the need to stretch out. But depending on our intended goal there are different types of stretches.

  • Static stretches
  • Active stretches
  • Dynamic stretches
  • PNF (Contract-relax)

While these stretches will help, it might only be temporary without regular repetition and reinforcing the nervous system with good movement.

Strengthening

There is a misconception that resistance training causes our muscles to feel tighter. Mainly due to the effect of DOMS. That feeling of soreness you have the day after a hard workout. But some recent studies have shown that strengthening can be equally, if not more beneficial than stretching.

Improvements in flexibility coming from improved ability to handle higher levels of metabolic stress and lower levels of inflammation. By lowering the threat to the nervous system through increased strength, it allows you to work the muscle through a wider range, without getting a stretch reflex.

Massage and other soft tissue work

Another way to help desensitise these tight muscles is to apply pressure. This could be with the use of a foam roller/lacrosse ball or other manual therapy techniques like deep tissue massage, myofascial release, trigger point release, dry needling.

Relaxation techniques and breathing mechanics

Like in the previous blog, an overactive or dominant sympathetic nervous system can cause muscle tightness. Finding ways of breaking poor postures or shallow breathing using a range of methods like kapalbhati, wim-hof, meditation, yoga etc. Using these methods are just part of the process to lowering overall tightness.

Usually, just following one of these methods individually is not going to be as effective as combining them together. Try to deal with the tightness from all angles.

If guidance is required or manual therapy techniques feel free to call 09 5290990.

Myofascial Release

Myofascia interweaves through our muscles and takes up to 80% of muscle mass. Consider this when you’re doing your stretching and but not getting the results you wanted, it’s possibly due to fascial restrictions.

What is Myofascia?

Fascia is the largest system in the body with the appearance of spider’s web. Fascia is very densely woven from the top of the head to our toes, covering and interpenetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein, all our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord. In this way, you can begin to see that each part of the body is connected to every other part by the fascia, like a fitted suit.

How would it affect me?

Myofascia interweaves through our muscles and takes up to 80% of muscle mass. Consider this when you’re doing your stretching and but not getting the results you wanted, it’s possibly due to fascial restrictions.

I’d like you to try something. Reach behind your back with your right hand, grab a handful of the shirt/top in the middle of your back. Now try and lift your left hand above your head, it will likely be restricted and wind up in certain areas. Think about the tightness and restriction you might feel doing an overhead lift or in the back when squatting, it could be the fascia pulling on these areas.

One study has shown that tightness in the posterior neck muscles can cause a significant decrease in hamstring length and strength. (1)

What causes it to get tight?

Postural adaptations, trauma, inflammatory responses, and surgical procedures create myofascial restrictions that can produce tensile pressures of approximately 2,000 pounds per square inch on pain sensitive structures that do not show up in many of the standard tests (x-rays, MRI scans, etc.)

What does Myofascial release involve?

The MFR technique appears quite light as it puts a slow sustained shearing force on the superficial layer of fascia that lies beneath the skin. The superficial layer taps into other deeper structures within muscle and other systems of the body. There is no oil used as it allows for more feedback detecting for fascial restrictions into the therapist’s hands. There is extensive evidence that shows myofascial release is an effective tool in improving flexibility and reducing pain (2,3,4,5)

How does it differ from a deep tissue massage?

With DTM this is more directed to muscle tissue that has adhesions or is tightened and needs deep pressure to bring back some length and lower its tone. Although the deep pressure can be painful depending on how sensitive the tissue is and pain tolerances of the individual.

 

  1. McPartland et al (1996) Rectus capitis posterior minor: a small but important suboccipital muscle, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
  2. Hsieh et al,  (2002) Effectiveness of four conservative treatments for subacute low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. Spine.
  3. Wong, K.-K. et al, (2016) Mechanical deformation of posterior thoracolumbar fascia after myofascial release in healthy men – a study of dynamic ultrasound. Physiotherapy
  4. LeBauer et al, (2008) The effect of myofascial release (MFR) on an adult with idiopathic scoliosis. J Bodyw Mov Ther.
  5. Ajimsha et al (2012) Effectiveness of myofascial release in the management of lateral epicondylitis in computer professionals. Arch. Phys. Med. Rehabi.
  6. Ajimsha, M.S. et al, (2014) Effectiveness of Myofascial release in the management of chronic low back pain in nursing professionals Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies