Why do my muscles always feel tight?
One of the most common reports that physiotherapists hear is that “my muscles feel tight”. There are so many reasons why muscles feel tight, which is exactly what can make this phenomenon so vague, the fact that muscle tension often is simply that, a feeling.
Interestingly, tightness is a feeling in the body that does not always refer to a mechanical shortening of tissue. This is commonly seen in individuals who “feel tight in their hamstrings” however, can put their palms on the floor whilst standing with straight knees. Therefore, tightness does not always mean that you have lost range of motion and aggressively stretching the hamstrings, in a situation like this would be of little benefit. However, this is exactly what we often tend to do. In fact, it is possible to stretch until the cows come home and experience no change in feelings of muscle tension.
So, what other reasons could explain feelings of tension in a muscle? Like other warning systems of the body (e.g., pain), we can sometimes feel an unpleasant sensation when there is in fact no tissue damage. Pain (and sensations of tension) can come about due to a perception of threat, whereby the body is trying to warn us that something is wrong. So, what could be wrong if you’re sitting at your desk, and you feel an uncomfortable tightness through your neck and shoulder muscles. Well, it could be blood flow issues or changes in the metabolic processes of the muscle tissue. Pain receptors could be activated, and the tension sensation arises. In an instance like this the muscle may not be tight, in the shortened sense, however, it “feels tight”, and this sensation can be a warning for you to get up and move to improve blood flow or the metabolism of the muscle tissue.
So how can we reduce the feelings of tightness? For those who suffer from long-term feelings of tension, stretching has normally been tried and has not been successful. If stretching regularly and intensely does not seem to help reduce the feeling of muscle tension than it is likely that there are more complex drivers behind the scenes and in this instance, simply adding more aggressive stretching will not help. In fact, this could even exacerbate already irritable muscles. In general, with regards to stretching, if it feels good and helps relieve symptoms, do it. If not, then look for alternative strategies like strengthening or manual therapy.
Massage or soft tissue work does have some local muscle tissue effects which could improve blood flow. Another possible reason can be the inhibition of sensory pathways that conduct the messages associated with feeling pain or discomfort. This could help desensitise the local muscle tissue at a more brain and nerve level.
Sometimes it is important to improve your posture or the control of your body so that there is less local stress on specific muscles. Slumped sitting positions for example, can increased the stress on neck and shoulder girdle muscles. Sitting more upright or supported, and training the control systems associated with these postures could assist long term in reducing feelings of muscle tension.
And then there is exercise, which rarely fails to help the human body in one way or another. There is a common belief that exercise creates stiff and shortened muscles, and this can be the case if muscles are overworked and not given adequate time to rest. However, resistance exercise that encourages increases in strength, through full joint range of motion at the joints being worked, can increase flexibility and reduce sensations of stiffness in the long-term. Naturally, there is much variation between individuals, and everyone would need to have their individualised exercise plan however, this would be a great starting point for most who suffer from long-term feelings of muscle tension.
If you can relate to these feelings of muscle tightness, and they have been frustrating you, why not book in to see one of our physiotherapists to assess and guide you in the best way to move forward and improve your health.
By Leroy Dekker