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.

Understanding your Nervous System

A healthy nervous system allows us to perform at a high level. Using particular methods we can tap into the subconscious side to improve the running of vital bodily functions.

You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails

Our nervous system has a connection to all structures in the body. Without a healthy working nervous system most bodily functions suffer, our performance in life situations and sport are hindered and recovery from injury is impacted.

The Nervous system

Part of our central nervous system, within our subconscious is a mechanism for handling stressful situations. This is called the Autonomic Nervous system. It branches into two parts; the Sympathetic NS (SNS) and Parasympathetic NS (PNS). The SNS stimulates the bodily functions preparing us for the “fight, flight or freeze” in life threatening situations. The PNS is the other branch that prepares us for “rest, digest and heal”. It’s the PNS that should be the primary driver of our physiology.

B_B6BaNUsAAC6-G

Using the mailman and dog as an example. Most canines are territorial and when unknown visitors arrive they become defensive, will bark and jump at the door. It’s ready to fight. When the postman leaves, the dog quickly forgets what happened and is able to fall asleep within minutes. It recognises the threat has gone and can immediately relax.

Consider yourself in the same situation, feeling threatened of an intruder. You might shout at them to leave or prepare to engage with them. When the person retreats could you relax straight away or will you be on edge for hours or even days?

The SNS is important but only has a purpose for the short term, to allow us to deal with threatening situations. Unfortunately with hectic lives, our brain interprets these physical and mental stresses as life threatening, which frequently triggers the SNS on a daily basis. Constantly stimulating SNS can lead to chronic issues…

  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disorder
  • Non-working muscular tension
  • Hyperventilation
  • Adaptation failure
  • Cognitive dysfunction

The brain struggles to identify physical stress’ and imagined stress’. Anxiety of an electricity bill, job cuts at work or relationship issues will fire up the SNS.

Throughout exercise/sport our PNS and SNS working in balance. Depending on particular stressors like speed, distance, duration, the SNS may start to have a greater influence. It’s important to get into our PNS state for improved decision making, better oxygen delivery and for achieving optimal recovery.

Ways of Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

The PNS is the system we should be using most frequently . Therefore finding methods of staying in this state even when put under perceived levels of stress are important.

1. Breathing Mechanics

The way we breath has a deep connection to the autonomic nervous system. Shallow, apical breathing has a direct link to our SNS. But taking Deep diaphragmatic breaths stimulates the PNS. Using breathing exercises daily can help train you into a more relaxed state.  Methods such as….

Wim Hof Method

Apnea Breathing

Kapalbhati Breathing

2. Meditation Practices

Through channeling your thoughts and breathing, meditation can help induce a state of relaxation. Following this 5-10 minutes daily can help improve many different functions. Easy to use apps for this are…

Head Space

Wildflowers

                      SoundCloud – Mindfulness Works

3. Muscle relaxation

Using methods like meditation or yoga are ways of achieving muscle relaxation. Having massages and soaking in a hot bath also offers a way of relaxing muscles. The release of tight muscles indirectly sends signals to the brain to activate the PNS and switch off the SNS.

Continue reading “Understanding your Nervous System”

Sitting Posture – How important is it really?

Sitting posture is something that get’s heavily criticised and over analysed. There could be more to it than simple ergonomics.

Your best posture is your next posture

In the last several years sitting posture has been classed as the “new smoking” or a dangerous position that will ruin your life. There are various arguments for and against sitting from different health experts and research. My opinion on this topic comes from my own clinical experience and taking value from all of the other respective parties.

First of all, sitting is not dangerous. But the longer we sit over a prolonged time is not healthy

Our body is dynamic and multi-functional, one of these functions is sitting. What’s up for debate is length of time and position. Recent studies have documented the following long term health risks from prolonged sitting.

diabetes-infographic

**These studies are predictors for potential health risks, but are also contributed by poor nutrition, sleep deprivation and lack of exercise.

What’s the physical problem with sitting?

In unsupported sitting (i.e. on the floor, perched sitting) we have some activity from core muscles that stabilise the spine. With no activity we would collapse into a heap.

Our central nervous system cleverly adapts to positions we hold most in the day. In supported sitting our body adjusts, slowly loosing flexibility in the thoracic spine, hips and hamstrings. The trunk muscles, “the core” reduce activity in sitting and loose their primary function of support when doing physical activities. Other muscles like the glutes, scapular stabilisers and posterior rotator cuff become short or weakened.

With the lack of support our body naturally falls into the path of least resistance and this is when changes in posture begin to happen. Essentially causing us to hang off the tension of ligaments and other soft tissue, instead of support from the tone and strength of stabilising muscles.

Chemical changes are brewing while sitting

The longer we sit without movement puts more stress and pressure specific tissues. Causing reduced blood flow to that area, meaning it gets less oxygen and less removal of metabolic bi-products. The muscle becomes increasingly toxic and acidic.

Luckily our tissues hold acidic sensing Ion channels that detect changes to PH levels. When in an acidic environment it sends our brain a signal and we get the feeling of discomfort.

Choosing to ignore the discomfort and stay in the same position causes an increase in toxicity and will result in the development of the trigger point phenomenon. Another phenomenon called central sensitisation may also happen. When pain signals constantly bombard the brain with pain signals it lowers your pain thresh-hold, making you more susceptible to pain in stressful environments.

Whats the answer to sitting?

Looking at the physical and chemical changes that happen in a sustained position you can see that any position for a prolonged time is not beneficial to us.

A posture that doesn’t move isn’t a postural problem, it’s a problem of movement.

“Neutral” spinal and postural alignment is all well and said. But even sitting in an ergonomically aligned position will feel uncomfortable if sat this way for 8 hours.

To counteract the negative effects of sustained sitting positions, here are some recommendations:

1. Position variation

Look at the postures below. Some of them were traditionally classed as “bad” postures. But these postures vary the tensions and stress’s applied to different tissue. By regularly changing these forces it will allow you to tolerate sitting for longer. Making a conscious effort to change position every 15-20 minutes (remember you can still work, just change position).

Sitting variation

2. Get up and move

Offload the stress and compression of your toxic butt! Giving a chance for tissue to oxygenate and flush unwanted toxins away. Also reducing eye strain, stress levels and fatigue. Not to mention all the other long term health benefits displayed above.

Studies have shown improvements in performance with intermittent breaks every 30 minutes (4). Consider standing when taking a phone call. Think about how many calls you get a day!

3. Sit-standing desks

Standing desks have taken off and are all the rage in open plan offices. Standing gives those stablising muscles a chance to work their magic. But even with standing you should consider regularly changing standing positions to offload pressures. Using a perching stool or foot stool to alternate step-standing.

4. Exercise

If this component is not included all of the above strategies will be wasted. Standing desks are not an exercise, it encourages a little more activity and is more sustainable. But your body needs to be challenged in other positions other than the one you hold most of the day. The long term health benefits are well documented for exercise.

Remember if you are just starting to exercise and coming from prolonged sitting over a number of years, ease into exercise gradually. Start off with regular power walks or exercycle. But as your fitness improves try to challenge it more, through other sources like pilates, yoga, resistance training or team sports.

Sitting isn’t the problem, it’s not moving enough. 

  1. Bell et al, (2014) Combined effect of physical activity and leisure time sitting on long-term risk of incident obesity and metabolic risk factor clustering. Diabetologia
  2. Schmid et al, (2014) Sedentary behavior increases the risk of certain cancers. J Natl Cancer Inst

  3. Katzmarzyk et al, (2012) Sedentary behaviour and life expectancy in the USA: a cause-deleted life table analysis. 
  4. Thorp et al (2014), Breaking up workplace sitting time with intermittent standing bouts improves fatigue and musculoskeletal discomfort in overweight/obese office workers. Occup Environ Med.

Coping with stress – Part 2

Trying to change the environment and cause of stress can be challenging. But there are some basic strategies to lighten the level of stress you feel.

It’s not the Load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.

Right, so we understand the main causes of stress, its impact on bodily functions and affect on pain sensitivity when we have an injury. How do we learn to cope with different types of stress? What can I do to make it easier? A “stress free zone” may be impossible but a “stress reduced zone” is better than nothing.

Recognising stress

You might notice your muscles getting tighter when training in the gym. To prevent a strain of the muscle and relieve the tightness, you would stretch or use a foam roller. The same applies to emotional stress. We all respond differently to stress and it sometimes can be the subtle changes that we need to recognise.

Changes like shallow breathing, palpitations, tense muscles, perspiring. If things like this start to happen it’s important to stop for a moment and consider “is this stress benefiting me or another person?”. Remember, stress is a system to save us or someone else from a life threatening situation.

Question your stress – is the feeling beneficial to me or someone else?

Stress is a great response to have, for example if someone was chasing after you with a knife or you needed to save someone from being run over. Consider the stress felt if you’re receiving more emails than normal, having relationship difficulties or have demanding kids. Is this stress response beneficial to anyone?

Managing stress

Look at the following strategies, some may be easier said than done but if it helps alleviate a small amount of stress it’s a start:

  • Take charge of the situation, make changes where possible, including the way you react to it
  • Tune out negative thoughts, adapt to more moderate/positive views
  • Step back from the situation to gain perspective
  • Take regular breaks – diffuse your brain from constant activity
  • Set realistic Goals
  • Keep hydrated, healthy eating and sleeping
  • Find a healthy outsource to down regulate, exercise, deep breathing, meditation

Strategies for dealing with stress

Lung iconBreathing

Focusing on something as simple as breathing is a way to off load demand on our nervous system. Allowing full expansion of the lungs changes the flow of blood through the body and the stretch response on the lung tissue decreases the sympathetic nervous system allowing stress factors to be relieved (1).

Sitting down, place a towel around the ribs and hold it tight at the front. Breath down to the lower ribs to get them to expand. Take in a slow but normal deep breath and exhale at the same speed.

Slsleep-icon-29.jpgeeping

We’ve heard 8 hours of sleep is good for us. How many of you stick to that practice? Sleep deprivation impacts our hormones that regulate stress levels (2) and can have many other health implications (i.e. diabetes, obesity).

Structure your sleep, be consistent with when you go to bed, try not to eat 2 hours before hand, avoid staring at a screen 1 hour before.

*There should be no guilt with napping. Your body clock (circadian clock), follows a rhythm through the day and twice our body temperature drops slightly to prepare us for sleep. Once in the evening and 8-10 hours after we wake up (mid-day slump). Our busy lives during a working week restrict us from napping. But at weekends a siesta can be of benefit (3,4).

Circle-icons-water.svgHydration

Cortisol is a stress regulating hormone in the body and has been found to increase when poorly hydrated (5). Trying to maintain 2 liters of water a day, obviously more if you have been training.

exercise-icon-19Meditation

Giving your self time to step back from your busy life and switch off can be hard. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels (6). Meditation can come in a number of forms; from formal classes, youtube videos, even to walking or running in the park. The idea remains the same, to switch off your overactive brain.

 exercise-icon-19 (1)Exercise

Exercise comes in all types and it’s been well published to help not only with physical but also mental health (7). Find a way of fitting in some exercise each day whether it be high intensity, a team sport or just getting out for a run.

Many of the suggested strategies are essential to our own existence. But how often do we think about full diaphragmatic breathing, prioritising sleep and hydration? These are suggestions to reduce stress levels, the causes of stress will continue to be demanding if not changed.

  1. Eckberg, D. L. (2003). The human respiratory gate. The J of Physiology
  2. Spiegel (1999) Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet
  3. Murphy (1997) Night time drop in body temperature: a physiological trigger for sleep onset? Sleep J
  4. Monk et al, (1996) Circadian determinants of the post-lunch dip in performance. Chronobiol Int
  5. Maresh Et al (2006) Effect of hydration state on testosterone and cortisol responses to training-intensity exercise in collegiate runners. Int J Sports Med
  6. Schmidtman et al, (2006) Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders The J Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences
  7. Anderson et al, (2013) Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety Front Psychiatry

Coping with Stress – Part 1

We all suffer with stress and it’s becoming a growing problem where people struggle to cope and burnout. Stress impacts my patients on a number of levels, mainly with pain perception. When under control we have better recoveries from injury.

The Greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

Everyone can recognise stress in their daily life. Some people seem to have more stress than others, or is it simply their reaction to events that creates stress? What is stress? And why is a physio talking about stress?

What is stress?

Fight or flight is stress at its very basic. It’s an important mechanism our brain has to cope and be ready for any perceived threat. This causes many bodily changes to prepare us for action, such as increased neural activity, muscle tone, heart rate, breathing pattern disrupted sleep etc. But stress is also emotional and responds with the same physical response. There are two forms of stress positive and negative. It helps to have a balance of both to make logical decisions.

Positive: It can motivate us into action and achieve our goals.

Negative: Too much causes anxiety and other health issues.

There are many forms of emotional stress. Everyone manages stress differently, making it easier for some people to cope with than others. Below are the leading causes of negative stress.

  • Workplace environment, too many emails, phone calls, long hours
  • Divorce/breakups/relationship difficulties
  • Demands of family/children (sleep patterns, household duties, balancing activities)
  • Car accidents. Being stuck in traffic
  • Theft, burglary, loss of personal property
  • Loss of employment or business
  • Death of a family member or close friend
  • Cash flow problems
  • Poor academic performance/work overload

How can stress impact my injury?

When we’re injured we have the mechanical pain from the damaged structures. But carrying negative stress causes increased sensitivity of our pain receptors and decreases the inhibitory interneurones in the central nervous system that regulate how much pain we feel (1,2). If we find ways to channel our stress better the pains we feel from injury become more tolerable.

  1. Donello et al, (2011) A peripheral adrenoceptor-mediated sympathetic mechanism can transform stress-induced analgesia into hyperalgesia.
  2. Corcoran et al, (2015) The Role of the Brain’s Endocannabinoid System in Pain and Its Modulation by Stress.

Trigger points – what are they?

Trigger points are the most common source of muscle pain. There are many factors that affect a trigger point and for best results they should all be identified.

I’m going to put a wild bet out there that everyone has a trigger point in at least one muscle of their body. Some have more than others. Who of you are regularly rubbing their shoulders or elbows? More and more we are sitting at the computer or looking down at our phones (sorry for writing this blog) causing prolonged tension on muscles around the neck and shoulder, resulting in the development of trigger points.

What is a Trigger point?

It is defined as a hypersensitive palpable nodule in taut bands of muscle fibers. Meaning very small bundles of muscle fiber have become contracted/”knotted” due to a chemical imbalance within the tissue.  The area is very painful and can cause you to jump or cramp on palpation. It can cause referred pain, weakness and restriction through movement. Which makes doing normal activities and training difficult.

Triger Point diagram
Diagram of trigger points within a muscle

Trigger points of individual muscles have a very specific referred pain pattern and can mimic other problems. For example pain in the forearm and wrist can be referred from Infraspinatus, a shoulder muscle. Without a detailed assessment and clearing other areas this could be misconceived as a tennis elbow.

What causes a trigger point?

A TP can be brought on in a number of ways. 

  • Poor postures held for a prolonged period, causing certain muscles to work harder while trying to support structures like the head, eventually causing TP’s.
  • Repetitive strain on muscles from overuse over multiple days, weeks and months. How many clicks of the mouse or typing are your doing? How much swiping of the smartphone? These repetitive movements take their toll.
  • Emotional stress and poor sleep can cause muscle tension. Particularly the neck and shoulder muscles.
  • A lack of movement will develop TP’s when sitting or on bed rest for a prolonged time.
  • Heavy lifting can cause the development of TP’s when the muscle is placed under excessive loads which it is not familiar with.
  • Trauma to a muscle, either as a reflex to pain or overcompensating for the weak and injured structure. This is quite common with car accidents or sports injuries.

Our muscles sit within a biochemical “soup” of  hormones, nerve transmitters and chemicals, all affecting the PH and Oxygen levels of the tissue. Your body knows the perfect recipe to keep everything balanced, but when we overload it with one or more of the above, it causes changes to the recipe, resulting in a drop in PH (becoming more acidic) and reduces the oxygen supply. This leads to the development of TP’s.

How do we treat a trigger point?

Your desire to change must be greater than your desire to stay the same. 

The following treatments for trigger points will help settle them down, but if we provide the same environment they will return.

  • Trigger point release – sustained manual pressure applied to the trigger point causes increased blood flow to remove toxins from the area, interrupts the pattern of pain and spasm and encourages the production of natural pain relieving endorphin’s.
  • Trigger point dry needling – There is a growing evidence base for trigger point dry needling. The needling causes local twitch responses which are a central nervous system reflex. This helps disrupt the pain feedback loop but also reset the acidic biochemical “soup” the muscle is sitting in, back to its normal levels.
  • Myofascial release – the surrounding tight myofascial tissue that feeds into and over the trigger points could also be restricted, causing further exacerbation of the area. Using this technique will give some length back to these structures and can alleviate the trigger point.

Once the hands on therapy has been applied it is not the end of treatment. The muscles with the TP’s will need to be stretched to help prevent their return. Postural correction and stability exercises for surrounding muscles may need to be followed. Changes ergonomically may need to be enforced to prevent falling back into poor habits. Also looking at ways of alleviating stress through improved sleep, meditation, breathing techniques and increase of general exercise.

All of these factors will need to be considered to provide long lasting benefit and avoid their return.

  1. Travell & Simon (1999). Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual
  2. Shah et al (2008) Uncovering the biochemical milieu of myofascial trigger points using in vivo microdialysis: An application of muscle pain concepts to myofascial pain syndrome. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
  3. Simons, (2008), New Views of Myofascial Trigger Points: Etiology and Diagnosis, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Back Pain Myth Busting Part 5

This series of blogs is to help bring some clarity with what to expect with back pain and what the evidence is telling us.

And the final part of this Lower back pain blog is regarding factors in our life that we wouldn’t think influence our pain. Also, there is hope for people dealing with persistent back pain.

 

9 Sleep deprivation, stress, low mood and worry influence back pain

Some people feel that pain can only be mechanical, but there are a few other factors that affect our pain perception when we have lower back pain. Life events that cause increased levels of stress or depression can enhance the pain we feel. Understanding these factors and trying to take control of them will help. Studies have shown that with a cognitive approach dealing with stress’, fears relating to the injury and of movement will help lower pain scores and result in good outcomes (1)

 

10 Persistent back pain can get better

As previously noted in the last point and the other parts of this blog, there are many factors influencing back pain and not every individual is the same, requiring a tailored treatment plan to match their needs. Most people with persistent back pain will likely need to address non-physical factors as mentioned in the last point (2).

It is very common as most treatments only address one factor, if someone goes for a massage for their sore muscles, but fails to address their stress at work or fitness levels. You can understand why problems likes this become an “on + off” issue throughout life.

Identifying the different contributing factors for each individual and trying to address them, pain can be greatly reduced and people can live a happier and healthier life.

 

1.     O’Keeffe et al, (2015) Individualised cognitive functional therapy compared with a combined exercise and pain education class for patients with non-specific chronic low back pain: study protocol for a multicentre randomised controlled trial, BMJ Open

2.     O’Sullivan, P. (2012) ‘It’s time for change with the management of non-specific chronic low back pain‘, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(4), 224-227.