One of the most common sensations that people report is that they are tight in certain muscle groups. They may be able to bend further than gumby himself, but still they will report the same tight feeling or sensation. To understand why you can feel tight but still be so flexible it’s important to know that a short muscle is not equivalent to a tight muscle.
Muscles can only do a couple of things, tighten and relax. In the case of a shortened muscle, the muscle can become physically shortened and lose length. Muscle shortening is mostly a result of not using a range of motion for a long period of time. The reason that it does this is complex. In essence, each muscle has a length that it is optimal for producing force. When a muscle is put into a shortened position for a long time (like the calf muscle when wearing heels) the body will actually reduce the available length of the muscle. This typically ends up causing an issue when someone starts trying to use a greater range of motion by picking up a new exercise program because now their mobility is dramatically reduced. We can get more into that in another post, let’s move on to what that tight sensation is all about.
The most common causes of muscle tightness are: overuse, dehydration, injury, and stress. Let’s look at each one and see how it contributes to muscle tightness.
Overuse typically occurs with faulty movement patterns. For example, if someone bends forwards from the waist instead of their hips, the back muscles get overworked because they’re doing all the work to get them back to upright. If someone has a lot of pectoral tightness and their shoulders sit forward, the rotator cuff muscles can’t work correctly, so they begin to use their upper traps and neck muscles to lift their arms. This last one is commonly the reason that people sense they feel all their stress or tension in their neck and shoulders.
Someone’s initial response to this tightness feeling is typically to stretch it or mash into it with some firm object, however this is only met with temporary relief at best. If this sounds familiar to you, the best way to get it addressed is to have your movement evaluated by a physical therapist.
Dehydration, especially here in Arizona is a very common problem. When you’re dehydrated your body loses the ability to get necessary nutrients to the muscles. This leads to the muscles feeling overworked because they need to do the same job on less fuel. This typically leads to tightness and cramping in the calves but can affect other muscles as well. As a general recommendation you should drink ½ your body weight of water in ounces (no, coffee doesn’t count) each day if you’re not doing anything strenuous. If you exercise you need to increase that number. And if you live in Phoenix or another dry climate, add 10-20%. To put that into perspective there are only 128 oz in a gallon. So if you’re an active individual who weighs 150, then 50% of 150 is 75 oz. Add 20-30 oz for activity (100oz), then add 20% (120oz). That gets you right up to a gallon a day.
Try taking a large water bottle to work that way you minimize the number of times that you have to take a trip to the water cooler. Know how many you have to drink a day to reach your goal.
Muscles tighten protectively when they feel that something in the body is at danger of being injured. Many times tightness and mobility restrictions can precede the sensation of pain or injury. Muscles can also tighten in the case of misalignment, particularly in the lumbopelvic area. If you’re having pain in an area and it seems to be associated with muscle tightness, the best thing to do is have your movement evaluated. If you get on top of it quickly, chances are you can resolve the issue in a matter of weeks and get back on track towards your goals.
Stress can take on many forms. We can get stressed due to poor nutrition, lack of sleep, or our daily interactions with certain individuals may be stressful. Much of the time, the stress can be felt in a particular area of the body, depending on the individual. If you find that you’re frequently feeling this type of stress try addressing the components you can have control over. While you may not be able to control that individual who causes you stress, you can start with trying to get a full night’s sleep 7.5-8.5 hours for most adults. Avoid caffeine past 2 pm to help allow you to sleep better, or consider taking melatonin before bed.
Speaking with a nutritionist may lead to some valuable insight to your nutrition habits. Getting frequent exercise can also help move the stress out of these areas, as stress is often the feeling associated with a chemical reaction in your body. Moving, sweating, and getting your body to circulate your blood can help reduce those feelings of stress.
To tie it all together, you may have tight muscles due to any of the above causes. The ones we deal with on a daily basis are associated with movement pattern faults or injury. If you’re having pain due to something you believe to be related to movement, we’re here to help. Give us a call at The Doctors of Physical Therapy. We specialize in treating athletes from all backgrounds: golf, baseball, weightlifters, runners, CrossFitters – and would be thrilled to help get you back to your sport without pain.