What is muscle tightness?
Muscle tightness is that tense feeling in specific muscles that can be very uncomfortable due to the restriction and pain that often accompanies it. Tightness usually only occurs in a part of the whole muscle, and occurs at a microscopic level. Figure 1 and 2 show this and that a muscle in the forearm is made up of many fascicles containing many muscle fibres, which are made up of many sarcomeres.
What causes muscle tightness?
Common causes of muscle tightness are:
- Muscle fatigue, resulting from:
– poor posture
– repetitive use/strain.
- Muscle injury or trauma
- Nerve damage
- Ischaemia (reduced oxygen from blood)
Figure 2 shows the functional unit of a muscle, called a sarcomere. This is made up of thick and thin filaments. During muscle contraction, these filaments will interconnect, then pull and slide over each other, which causes the muscle to shorten. When the muscle relaxes, the reverse occurs, and the filaments slide back to return the muscle to its original length. The above causes of tightness disrupt this process and result in these filaments becoming misaligned and non-uniform in the position and length of the muscle fibres.
Tightness and Weakness
Sarcomere (or muscle fibre) length is altered when a muscle is tight.
Figure 3 shows the relationship between the length and tension (or strength) at the muscle. The muscle length that produces the most tension is at 100% of its resting length, and so if there is tightness, which causes a shortening of muscle fibres, its strength will be decreased.
What does this mean?
When muscles become weak from being tight, they lose their ability to effectively and efficiently control the movement of the spine and/or other joints such as shoulders, hips and knees. This may then lead to other structures being injured such as joints, tendons, bursae, ligaments, nerves etc. being damaged which will result in pain and further tightness of the same muscle as the body tries to protect those structures by locking down and tightening the surrounding muscles.
5 ways to reduce muscle tightness
1. Isolated stretching of the muscle
– hold stretches for 20-30 seconds
2. Isolated strengthening of synergistic (opposing) muscles
– strengthen anterior neck muscles if posterior neck muscles are tight, or strengthen quads if hamstrings tight
3. Low intensity aerobic exercise
– walking, swimming, cycling etc.
4. Heat therapy to increase blood flow to the muscle
– heat pack, heat cream, hot bath/shower etc
Written by Dr. Jeremy Jose, Ma Osteo., Registered Osteopath at Head 2 Toe Health, a multidisciplinary clinic in Brisbane also providing Acupuncture, Massage, Life Coaching and Counselling – where we aim to get you as well as possible, as fast as possible, permanently. We believe in a thorough approach to restoring and maintaining health and address many aspects of our lifestyles that can contribute to pain, stiffness, dis-ease and disease. For any further information, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07) 3208 8308.