We all have a muscle that just won’t loosen up no matter how often you stretch it. After all, the way to loosen a tight muscle is to stretch it, right? Not necessarily. Not all muscles that are tight need to be, or should be stretched. It all depends on why it’s tight in the first place. Contrary to popular thinking, inflexibility isn’t always due to simple disuse or a lack of stretching. There’s often a functional underlying cause for the tightness and, and in those situations, stretching alone will get you nowhere until you’ve addressed the source of the dysfunction. Here are some common reasons that muscles can be tight.
Protection of a joint
Your body has a very intuitive mechanism to protect joints when they are injured. When you injure a joint, the surrounding muscles tighten up to protect it. For example, if you have an injury to the low back, it’s very common to feel tightening of the band of muscles that runs along the spine at the joint level. This is a great mechanism for acute injuries because it isolates the joint and gives it a chance to heal, but what about those chronic injuries that won’t go away.
After a certain point, we need the joint to function in its normal range of motion again. If not, neighboring areas can be affected as they are now picking up the slack that the injured joint was doing before. This results in tightening and pain over a greater area and a dysfunction over a larger area of the back. As the joints tighten the muscles tighten and as the muscles tighten the joints tighten. This pattern can continue until you feel pain in the mid back or even the neck.
Have you ever sprained you ankle? If so, you know that moving it not only feels very uncomfortable but you can feel tightness and stiffness in the surrounding muscles. The tightness that you feel is again the muscles protecting that area by limiting movement. When you think about what’s going on in the ankle, a sprain is typically an injury to the ligaments, which causes swelling in the ankle to the point where can balloon to the size of a grapefruit. With that much fluid buildup in such a small space, any movement will be irritating to the normal muscles, joint, ligaments etc. in that area. And don’t forget that poor ligament is injured, so it’s probably not too happy to move around or to bear weight. As a result the muscles tighten up, because, by association they become irritated as well.
Most people are tight in their hamstrings, calves, low back and neck because of the loads we are putting on our bodies. As a reaction to these loads, our nervous systems’ protective/defensive mode comes to action. What often creates these loads is poor or incorrect posture or function/movement. In other words, if you sit at a desk for 8 hours a day staring at a computer screen with your back rounded and shoulder turned in, your central nervous system will trigger mechanisms to rescue you from eventual breakdown. Protective tension is one of those mechanisms.
The mentality of “no pain, no gain” is very common. It may help you get through the rest of the day but the reality is that continuing to live in that way can have long term effects on your body. By creating longstanding and repeated overload in the body, you take away stability where it matters. This in turn will create an overload effect on that area of the body. When the brain perceives that a muscle or joint has been overloaded and is in danger of failing or becoming injured, the body creates a shut down of that muscle/joint. The nervous system reaction is one of protection to prevent injury which usually results in local muscle tension. While our typical reaction to a very tight hamstring is to stretch it more and more, the brain considers protecting it from injury a priority, especially when the demand of constant postural strain or intense daily exercise remains. But, usually the cycle continues despite the discomfort/tightness felt in the hamstring or hip, because you continue to run or push harder.
The perception that a particular muscle has gone rogue and just tightened is inaccurate. The body provides slack for movement through the complex network of fascia and nerves; muscles only stretch or move because of the fascia and nervous system send the signal to do so. The true way to reduce tightness or tension is to prevent the nervous system from locking down the tissues via appropriate loading and conditioning in training. Training the nervous system to accept controlled, safe movement is critical instead of the aberrant movement that has caused it stress in the past. Keep in mind, just because you can stretch further doesn’t mean that you can move better or with less risk of injury. The key to all increased ranges of motion is stability and correct movement from that point of stability. Without these two things, any seeming “improvement” will not be sustained.
Here is an example you can do on yourself quite easily. Move into a forward bend to touch your toes while moving your head and neck to stare at your navel. This lengthens the continuous line of tension of the nerves from the head to the feet through the spinal cord and sciatic nerve. When you go low enough, you may feel a familiar pain at the back of the knee. Or perhaps you will feel some other pain or stretch elsewhere, such as the low back.
To determine whether these symptoms are the result of adverse neural tension, you can release tension on the nerves in the low back and hamstring area by bending the head to look upwards while keeping the rest of the body in the same place. If this relieves symptoms at the hamstrings, your symptoms were caused by tensioning the nerves, because these are the only structures in the knee or low back that would have been affected by the head movement. You can play with moving your head up and down to feel how releasing and increasing tension on the nerves form above affects how you feel below.
A knot/trigger point
A trigger point is simply a small contracted knot in a muscle. This knot feels like a pea buried deep in the muscle, and can feel as big as the tip of your thumb. It maintains a hard contraction on the muscle fibers connected to it, causing a tight band that can also be felt in the muscle.
A trigger point is not the same as a muscle spasm. A spasm involves a violent contraction of the whole muscle, whereas a trigger point is contraction in only a small part of a muscle. If you push on the trigger point, it can refer away from that focal point. For example, many people have trigger points in the upper trapezius muscle (the large muscle between their neck and shoulder). If you find one and push on it, many people feel the pain travel in the back and side of their head.
Trigger points are known to cause or contribute to headaches, neck and jaw pain, low back pain, the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, and many kinds of joint pain mistakenly ascribed to arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, or ligament injury.
Trigger points are among the most common, yet poorly recognized and inadequately managed, causes of musculoskeletal pain. Unfortunately, trigger points often go overlooked and do not show on X-Rays or other scans. The patient may be told there is nothing wrong with them or that there is nothing that can be done to help fix their pain.
A contracted muscle and muscle shortening
A contracture deformity is the result of a stiffness or constriction in your muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, or skin that restricts normal movement. It develops when your normally pliable connective tissues become less flexible. This means your range of motion will be limited because of limitations in the range of motion or flexibility of the tissues involved. You may have difficulty moving your hand, stretching your legs, straightening your fingers, or extending another part of your body.
Contractures can occur in different parts of your body. A muscle contracture involves the tightening/shortening of the muscles. If you have a joint contracture, you will experience limited range of motion in a joint, where two or more bones connect.
The main causes of contracture are immobilization, spasticity or muscle weakness. People who have other conditions that keep them from moving around are at high risk for tightening of their muscles and joints. For example, joint contractures are common in patients discharged from intensive care units or after long hospital stays because of their immobilization or bed rest during their stay. Other causes include diseases that are inherited or that develop in early childhood.
Muscle shortening is relatively rare and reserved for very specific situations such as immobilization post surgery. When muscles and joints are immobilized in a shortened position can result in changes in the muscle, tendon and connective tissue structure. This results in the loss of flexibility.
Muscle spasticity is the result of a muscle being overactive, resulting in constant contraction. This reduces the amount of control that you have of the muscle and joint, and over time makes it more difficult to move the joint.
Certain neurological conditions such as Muscular dystrophy involves weak muscles and muscle tissue loss. People with this disease often experience muscle tightness. Cerebral palsy is also a disease that causes muscle tightness and limits movement. Central nervous system diseases like polio also cause this condition. Additionally, if you suffer from conditions that cause inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, you are more at risk. As you can see, these sound like serious and chronic conditions, and they are.
Muscles that haven’t been used much or that are kept shortened for long periods of time (e.g. hip flexors while sitting) will tend to loose flexibility. But sometimes muscles tighten up because they’re actually working too hard and/or for too long. In essence, they don’t ever get a chance to relax. It is very important to understand why your muscles are tight and understand the mechanism behind the madness.
It is a common misconception that a tight muscle is a strong muscle; in reality, it is just the opposite. It may be strong only within a very limited range of motion, limiting the amount of mobility that it creates over a joint, in which case it will tend to resist being pulled out of its comfort zone rather than risk injury by working at its extremes where it’s weaker.
If you stretch a muscle that’s tight because it’s just too weak to do its job, you haven’t done it or yourself any favors. These muscles need to be strengthened. Only when they’re strong enough will they be able to “let go” and loosen up. Calf and hip flexors commonly fall into this category. And if you try to stretch out a muscle that’s become tight compensating for another muscle, you won’t get very far until you identify and strengthen the deficient muscle. Hamstrings and upper trapezius muscles–compensating for weak glutes and lower trapezii/rhomboids, respectively–are typical examples of this pattern.
We have been conditioned to think of the tightness itself as the problem, thus the automatic tendency to try to stretch. But in reality, sometimes tightness is a result of the problem. In those situations, stretching is not the answer–at best it gets you nowhere, and at worst, it aggravates the problem. So the key to correcting the issue is figuring out why a muscle is tight. It might even clue you in to a problem you didn’t know you had. If you aren’t sure what’s causing your muscle tightness or how to manage it, visit your North York Chiropractor or call us at 647-504-4213.