As physical therapists, muscle tightness or stiffness is one of the most common complaints we hear in clinic. But what does that really mean? Does it mean they’re shortened? Does it mean those muscles are overactive and unable to relax? We often hear this term used, but upon looking at range of motion, it is completely normal and uninhibited. So why does a muscle FEEL tight even it if is physically not by all appearances.Stiffness or tightness is a pretty universal sensation, not unlike pain. Pain is the alarm that sounds when the body perceives a change needs to be made to avoid a threat (this is sometimes a false alarm, but an alarm nonetheless). It would seem like stiffness or feelings of tightness would serve a similar purpose in the body – to communicate with us that something needs to change. But what?
A complex answer
Because so much of our experience is influenced by multifactorial inputs received by the body, it can be something as simple as a belief pattern, ie. “Every time I sit down at a computer I feel like crap”. It can also be a number of other mental and behavioral factor such as stress. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “you seem to carry a lot of your stress in your shoulders, or jaw,” you’ve heard that there’s a relationship between physical sensations and stress. When we experience stress whether it be physical, mental, emotional, social, or financial, the brain releases cortisol and other stress related hormones in the body that tells the nervous system to increase the sensitivity on the alarms – or to err on the side of operating in a state of “fight or flight”.
Another aspect may be fear or the history of a past injury that is causing you to avoid particular movements or activities. Our bodies were made to move in a highly variable way. While there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” posture, if we spend excessive time in any prolonged position – this lack of variability can contribute to feelings of tightness.
On the opposite side of the spectrum – a lack of sufficient rest and recovery or blood flow can also be the cause. This may be the result of repetitive tasks, overtraining, or engaging in an activity in which you may not have adequate capacity for. Ie. Your hamstrings may feel tight because they lack the strength to cope with the amount of loading being placed on them on a consistent basis.
What to do with persistent tightness
As we’ve alluded to – the cause of your stiffness or tightness can be a number of things and there is most likely more than one contributing factor. If you have persistent tightness, and stretching has not worked to relieve your symptoms (at least not more than temporarily), you may benefit from working with one of our experienced physical therapists to find the driver of your stiffness and finding the solution to kick that nagging sensation to the curb. Contact us today and see what can be done about your ongoing muscle stiffness!