Why Do Muscles Feel Tight?

*This was originally published on Todd Hargrove’s blog Oct 12, 2016

Why do muscles feel tight? Does that mean they are short? That they can’t relax? And what can you do about it?

Here are some of my thoughts about why muscles feel tight and what to do about it.

(Update – See bottom of the post for recent research confirming some of the speculations in this post.)

Tightness Is A Feeling, Not Just A Mechanical Condition

When someone says they feel tight in a particular area, they might be referring to several different complaints. So I try to find out:

  • Are they talking about poor range of motion?
  • Or maybe range of motion is fine, but a movement to the end range feels uncomfortable or takes excess effort.
  • Or maybe the problem isn’t really with movement, but just that the area never reels feels relaxed.
  • Or maybe the area feels basically relaxed, but has some vague sense of discomfort – a feeling that is unpleasant but too mild to be called pain.

This ambiguity means that the feeling of tightness is just that – a feeling – which is not the same thing as the physical or mechanical property of excess tension, or stiffness, or shortness. You can have one without the other.

For example, I have many clients tell me their hamstrings feel tight, but they can easily put their palms on the floor in a forward bend. I also have clients whose hamstrings don’t feel tight at all, and they can barely get their hands past their knees. So the feeling of tightness is not an accurate measurement of range of motion.

Nor is it an accurate reflection of the actual tension or hardness of a muscle, or the existence of “knots.” When I palpate an area that feels tight to a client (let’s say the upper traps), they often ask – can you feel how tight that is?! 

I often say something like:

Ummmmmm …… no. It feels just like the surrounding tissues.

But I completely understand that it FEELS tight in this area and you don’t like it.

I don’t like the feeling of tightness either so I want to help you get rid of it. But the feeling of being tight isn’t the same thing as that area actually being physically tight. Make sense?

This actually does make sense to most people, and they find it mildly interesting. I want people to understand this because it might help them reconsider a misconceived plan they may have already developed for curing their tightness – such as aggressive stretching, fascia smashing, or adhesion breaking. So now they are willing to consider an approach that is a bit more subtle than driving a lacrosse ball halfway through their ribcage.

Why Do Muscles Feel Tight If They Are Not Actually Tight?

So why would a muscle feel tight even if it physically loose?

I think we can use pain as an analogy. Pain can exist even in the absence of tissue damage, because pain results from the perception of threat, and perception does not always match reality. Pain is essentially an alarm, and alarms sometimes go off even when there is no real danger.

Perhaps a similar logic is involved in the feeling of tightness. The feeling happens when we unconsciously perceive (rightly or wrongly) that there is a threatening condition in the muscles that need a movement correction.

So what is the threatening condition that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about? Surely it is not just the presence of tension – muscles are made to create tension and we often feel tightness in muscles even when they are almost completely relaxed.

So the tension is not a threat, but the absence of adequate rest or blood flow is a threat, which could cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors. So the problem that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about is not the existence of tension, but the frequency of tension or the lack of blood flow (especially to nerves, which are very bloodthirsty.)

With this in mind, I think of the feeling of tightness as a variety of pain, perhaps a pain too mild to deserve being called pain. But it is definitely bothersome. And it has a certain flavour or character that motivates an interest in changing resting posture, or moving around or stretching. Which is different from certain pains, which often make you want to keep still. Maybe we could say that pain is warning us to not move a certain area, while tightness is warning us to get moving.

How Can You Cure Muscle Tightness?

I think we can probably treat the feeling of tightness in the same way we treat pain – by changing one of the many “inputs” that cause the nervous system to perceive a threat in the body, such as nociception, thoughts, emotions, memories, etc.

Some pains are very obviously related to movement or postural habits. We can know this if someone says something like: “It hurts when I do this, and it hurts even more when I do more of this, and it hurts less when I do less of this.” In this case, changing movement or posture is likely to help because it will reduce the main driver of the pain – mechanical nociception caused by movement.

On the other hand, there are many other cases of pain, particularly chronic pain, that are more complex – the pain doesn’t correlate very much with certain movements or postures, but instead with other variables like time of day, sleep duration, emotional state, stress level, diet, general exercise, or some random unknown factors. In this event, it is unlikely that mechanical nociception caused by movement is the main driver of the pain, and more likely that peripheral or central sensitization are playing more of a role.

I think we can look at the feeling of tightness in the same way.

In most simple cases of feeling tight, the cause is obvious – we have been stuck in the same posture or movement pattern for too long, and our muscles need a rest or change of position to reduce the ischemia or metabolic stress that is causing nociception in certain areas. For example, if we spend hours in a car, or an airplane, or behind a computer, we will instinctively feel compelled to stretch and move, and this will usually alleviate any feelings of stiffness or yuckiness.

 

Of course, most clients who complain of chronic tightness have already tried and failed at this simple strategy. The feeling of stiffness remains for hours and days at a time, comes and goes as it pleases, and is less related to posture and movement.

In these cases, the driver of the discomfort may have more to do with the nervous system becoming either peripherally or centrally sensitized to the need for more blood flow in certain areas. This could happen through local inflammation, adrenosensitivity, increased sensitivity at the dorsal horn, or maybe even learned associations between certain environments (say computers) and certain sensations (e.g feeling like crap).

So how do we reduce this sensitivity?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question because if there was, it would solve the problem of chronic pain, and no one is figured out how to do that yet. But if I’m right that the feeling of tightness is a mild form of pain, then it should at least be easier to deal with.

Below is a list of several methods people often use to address a chronic feeling of tightness, along with some thoughts about each strategy from the above perspective. You’ll notice that some of the recommendations run exactly opposite to what people often do.

Stretching

We instinctively stretch muscles that have remained in a short position for a while, and this usually makes us feel immediately better.

But, as noted above, most people who suffer from chronic tightness have already tried and failed at this strategy, which suggests the issue is less about bad mechanics and more about increased sensitivity.

The problem is that many people, and indeed many therapists, will think that the failure of a few simple stretches indicates the need for a far more aggressive program.

Photo by: RachelScottYoga

This would, of course, make sense if the root of the problem was short or adhered tissues. But if the root problem is in fact increased sensitivity, then aggressive stretching might just make the problem worse. On the other hand, stretching can often have an analgesic and relaxing effect.

So is stretching a good way to cure tightness? Like with most things, I say if it feels good do it. If it doesn’t … don’t.

Soft tissue Work For Tightness

There are various soft tissue treatments (deep tissue massage, foam rolling, Graston, ART, IASTM) intended to lengthen short tissues, break adhesions, or melt fascia, etc. This is very likely impossible, as I and many others have pointed out.

But could these treatments decrease sensitivity and make someone feel less tight? For sure, by activating descending inhibition of nociception, which is a well-known effect of painful stimulation that is expected to bring health benefits.

But of course, these treatments also create nociception, which tends to increase sensitivity. It’s a fine balance that depends on the individual and many other variables. Again, if it feels good do it, but it’s an option, not a necessity, it’s only temporary, and you should keep in mind the reason for doing it.

Motor Control For Muscle Tightness

Many forms of movement therapy are essentially motor control approaches – they seek to change movement, postural and breathing habits so they are more efficient, eliminate parasitic tension, develop the skill of relaxation, etc.

 

Habits are hard to break, but this strategy is worth a shot, especially in cases where tightness seems related to certain postures or movements. Of course, where the situation is more complex, motor control shouldn’t be expected to fix the problem on its own.

Exercise And Resistance Training

People tend to associate strength training with becoming tighter. During exercise, muscle, of course, becomes very tense, and they may feel stiff the next day because of delayed onset muscle soreness. There is also the (false) idea that strength training makes muscles shorter and less flexible.

These concerns are unfounded. In fact, full range of motion strength training can increase flexibility, perhaps more than stretching. It creates local adaptations in muscle that may improve endurance and make them less likely to suffer metabolic distress. And exercise also has an analgesic effect and can lower levels of inflammation that cause nervous system sensitivity.

Here’s a personal anecdote. Back in the days when I did yoga, I had much more flexibility, but my hamstrings always felt tight. Then I quit yoga and started doing a lot of kettlebell swings. My forward bend decreased a bit, but the feeling of hamstring tightness was GONE, even though I was working the hamstrings HARD. In its place was a feeling of functional strength and capacity, which I imagine decreased any perception of threat related to lengthening my hamstrings.

Of course, if you overwork your muscles from strength training and don’t let them recover, they will get sensitive, stiff and sore. But if you work them the right amount – enough to create an adaptation and not too much to cause injury or prevent full recovery – then you will make them healthier, stronger, and yes – less stiff.

Conclusion

When you feel stiff, remember it is a feeling, and not necessarily a physical condition of shortness that needs an aggressive structural solution. Like other feelings, you feel it more when you are sensitive. And like other forms of sensitivity, it will go down if you improve your overall fitness, strength, awareness, motor control and health.

Update – August 30, 2017

This paper from Stanton, Moseley, et al. validates some of the speculations in this post. Here are some quotes from the abstract:

We propose a new hypothesis: feelings of back stiffness are a protective perceptual construct, rather than reflecting biomechanical properties of the back. . . . Over three experiments, we challenge the prevailing view by showing that feeling stiff does not relate to objective spinal measures of stiffness and objective back stiffness does not differ between those who report feeling stiff and those who do not. Rather, those who report feeling stiff exhibit self-protective responses: they significantly overestimate force applied to their spine, yet are better at detecting changes in this force than those who do not report feeling stiff. This perceptual error can be manipulated: providing auditory input in synchrony to forces applied to the spine modulates prediction accuracy in both groups, without altering actual stiffness, demonstrating that feeling stiff is a multi-sensory perceptual inference consistent with protection. Together, this presents a compelling argument against the prevailing view that feeling stiff is an isomorphic marker of the biomechanical characteristics of the back.

“Pain Is In The Brain” – Is It A Load Of S**T?

 

“Pain is in the brain” is by far and away one of my least favourite phrases and in my opinion unhelpful in understanding a modern view of pain.

Why….?

Well, there are a number of reasons.

  1. It implies (to me anyway) it is not IN the body. This for many people is tough to get their head around, and rightly so.
  2. This may also imply that it is “all in my head”. Again not a helpful message for many and could potentially create more problems than it attempts to solve.
  3. Has created polarisation. As pain obviously has a good part of its genesis within the body we now get the “pendulum has swung too far” fight back. This is a completely warranted stance against this argument. The problems potentially lie in the perception of those who think that anyone who believes the brain is a major player in the pain experience is suggesting pain is all “in the brain”. It is easy to create a counter-argument against a polarised opinion.
  4. That it is idiopathic and spontaneously erupts. Whilst this may be true in some isolated cases for many it is a maladaptation of the system in response to a more physical Genesis.

 

Human brain

 

PAIN IS AN OUTPUT OF THE BRAIN

‘Pain is an output of the brain’ seems a much more sensible way to explain the pain process in my opinion. This allows a model that incorporates both inputs from the body and a modulation of that input in the brain.

The more pain persists then the more it may be driven by top-down rather than bottom-up influences although we must remember that we can get changes, or plasticity, in the nociceptive (noxious stimulus) or danger processing system further down the chain in the periphery and the spinal cord as well.

Stimulus (danger!) processing within the brain can actually be used to turn the output or emergence of pain down as well as up. We have cleverly named ‘on’ and ‘off’ cells in our rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM) that do just that. ‘Off’ cells exert descending inhibition on nociceptive transmission while ‘on’ cells facilitate it.

‘PATHOLOGICAL’ PAIN

There does seem to be situations where pain itself becomes more of a pathological process. Phantom limb pain is an example where potentially the mechanism for pain is more about the representation of the limb in the brain than nociceptive signals from the limb and is very prevalent with amputees at between 60 & 80% HERE it is also worth reading Melzack and Katz’s opinion on this HERE.

Harris has suggested incongruence between motor intention and movement as a source of pain HERE and sensorimotor incongruence exacerbates the pain of chronic whiplash sufferer’s HERE although this is not a consistent finding HERE.

Moseley & Valyaen HERE and Zusman HERE have both proposed coupling between proprioceptive information, pain responses and memory within the brain that no longer requires nociceptive input from the body.

HERE we see that the visual distortion of a limb can actually affect the processing of pain!

These pieces of research and theory help us understand that pain is a complex process and a ‘pain’ signal is not just simply relayed from the body but it also does not mean that pain is only ‘in the brain’.

So if someone was to ask “is pain in the brain?” My answer would be no, it is much more likely that it is a complex interplay between bottom up and top down influences modulated by many factors and that the sensitivity of the systems involved in the experience of pain has the potential to change over time at peripheral, spinal and cortical levels.

SEMANTICS

Some might, and have, suggested that this is simply semantics. I would agree completely with this because semantics matter. How people interpret meaning is a huge great big deal when it comes to pain and to not recognize that is a problem. This is a great paper by Darlow HERE and another by Barker HERE

‘Pain is in the brain’ seems open to being misconstrued by those in pain and also those who realize it has a great deal of its genesis within the body too.

IS THE ‘ISSUE IN THE TISSUE’?

Is the ‘issue in the tissue’?

Well, of course, it can be, just sometimes a bit more and sometimes a bit less. This does not mean there has to be a pathological state of the tissue however or if there is that getting better is contingent on a change in the state of the tissue. HERE & HERE.

Although we are realizing that pain and damage are not one and the same, local biochemical processes are likely to be very much at play. Whilst there may not be pathology we may have a pathophysiological process occurring, this being a physiological process that has gone a bit haywire!

An example might be if I go out and run a bit more than my body is used to and the normal reparative processes, such as tissue regeneration, becomes replaced by a different cellular expression such as pro-inflammatory chemicals like neuropeptides. This has been documented with tenocytes (fibroblastic like cells) as they transduce mechanical force (mechanotransduction) into cellular processes such as the expression of substance P potentially creating a peptidergically driven inflammatory state in the tissue HERE and HERE we see an elevation of substance P in vivo in response to load.

So we may have a situation where the local tissue state is chemically sensitized due to activity, perhaps previously under loaded tissue and this could potentially be turned up by changes in sensitivity in the systems involved in pain peripherally, spinally or cortically dependent on individual previous pain experiences.

PHYSICAL CHANGES IN THE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN

Changes in the systems involved in the emergence of pain don’t have to be ‘in the brain’ either. The subcortical bits can play their role too with actual physical changes occurring to the peripheral nervous system (PNS) within the tissue. These changes to the PNS include an increase in the number of ion channels in the terminal endings of nociceptors making it easier to get sodium ions into the cell, depolarise it and send a signal (action potential) to the CNS. We also see an increase in the number of receptors and previously silent receptors becoming active.

The signal processing at the dorsal horn can also be ‘turned up’ with more NMDA/AMPA channels making it easier for the peripheral signals to be sent up the chain and an increase in excitatory neurotransmitters, such as glutamate and aspartate, and a decrease in inhibitory chemicals such as GABA and endogenous opioids.

We can also get long-term potentiation of spinal neurons in response to repetitive stimulation or a sustained ‘volley’ of signals from the C-fibres.

Basically put, the more noxious stimulus we receive the more sensitive the dorsal horn becomes to it.

HAS THE PENDULUM SWUNG TO FAR?

That probably depends on your bias and opinion but if someone was to suggest that pain is solely ‘in the brain’ then I would suggest yes it has!

An inclusive model that allows physical, physiological, neurological and psychological processing changes probably fits with what we know about pain at this point in time. Sometimes the pendulum may have to swing big firstly to overcome the inertia of previously held beliefs and then hopefully comes to rest somewhere in the middle.

Motivational Interviewing In Your Clinic

A great deal of our work as therapists involves helping people to make changes in order to get better outcomes, be it for general health and well-being, reductions in pain, or increases in mobility.

Our training and education means that we know a lot about what people need to do to achieve these outcomes. We are smart and we know it! We assume the patients coming in to see us, know that too. So it should be simple right, we tell them all the things that they need to know, and they go away and do it. But here lies the problem, no one really wants to be told what to do.

Take for example the person who has recently had a heart attack but is also a smoker. They are very likely to be informed of the fact that continuing to smoke is going to contribute to poor health outcomes including increasing the risk of another heart attack. With such a frightening near death experience, one might assume that being given sufficient information, combined with the fear of the experience would be enough to make someone stop smoking.

However the studies tend to tell us that only about half the people in this situation will actually quit smoking! (1) Mind blowing isn’t it? What this and many other studies in similar fields of healthcare continue to show us is that information and fear are not enough to change behaviour, no matter how dire the consequences. (2)

Changing Our Approach For Better Outcomes

Self management forms a big part of the picture in managing all chronic diseases. As we start to view pain with a more modern and science based understanding, our approach to treating it should start to shift away from trying to “fix” the patient and towards an empowering model of care that encourages the patient to take their health into their own hands.

Sounds easy doesn’t it?,  but many of us have been experiencing as practitioners what an uphill battle this is. Particularly in our western culture where there is an understanding around medicine being able to “fix” everything, so that the mere presence of pain is viewed as being “wrong”, and the understanding that as a consumer based system,  you just have to pay for the “thing” (manual therapy/ acupuncture/ surgery/ injections etc) and it will be done to you and will be effective.

Unfortunately, we know it doesn’t work like that.

Single modality approaches for treating any pain condition, but particularly chronic pain, are largely unhelpful in the long term and science tells us that adopting an active approach is far more likely to lead us to better outcomes. (3)

In treating pain and getting people to adopt behavioral change, some of the information we provide to help, might be of a therapeutic neuroscience education (TNE), explaining pain, pain education approach. Along the lines of what we see in situations like smoking cessation, weight loss and exercise programs, providing the information doesn’t always translate through to the outcomes we might hope.

That is not to say that we don’t use it.

The research tells us it has value (4-7) , we just understand that it is one part of the process, the information and context a person might use when deciding on taking a multidisciplinary and active approach to treating their pain.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a cognitive behavioral technique that helps patients to identify behaviors that may be preventing them from achieving optimal management of a chronic condition. It has been used in many healthcare settings which require behavioral change for better outcomes such as addiction medicine, oral-health self care, smoking cessation, weight loss, medication compliance and diabetes self management. It identifies a cycle that people tend to go through (and often go back around and around) in processing a change in behaviour.(2)

 

The process of motivational interviewing is one that provides structure around helping a person to find their own motivation, the idea being that if a person has made the choice for themselves they are far more likely to follow through with change, compared to when it is something that has been forced upon them.

It is a process that requires first establishing a level of rapport with the person and then helping them to identify what behaviors they would like to change. Within the approach there are some specific techniques that can help the practitioner to elicit in the patient a better understanding of what his or her thought processes are in relation to the problem. Then through a process of reflective listening and open ended style questioning, helping the person to identify how important the change is to them and how confident they are in being able to make those changes. From there a structured, but collaborative approach can address the barriers to change, identify measures of support and create a plan to move forward that fits with the patient’s own motivation.

The best thing about motivational interviewing is its accessibility. It is a process that has been used in industries other than just psychology, (sales and human resources to name a few). This means that it is easy to learn about it and that applying it in the clinic is not an “all or nothing principle”.

You can start to learn about some of the elements and apply them straight away – the easiest way is to refine your listening and reflecting skills and resist the urge to jump in straight away and tell people what they “should” be doing. There are lots of resources available in the form of short courses, blog post summaries, books and journal articles. So if you are feeling motivated, get your google on and work out what your next best step is to start delving into some motivation interviewing skills! (2)

 

References:

1. van Berkel TF, van der Vlugt MJ, Boersma H. Characteristics of smokers and long-term changes in smoking behavior in consecutive patients with myocardial infarction. Prev Med 2000, Dec;31(6):732-41.
2. Bundy C. Changing behaviour: Using motivational interviewing techniques. J R Soc Med 2004;97 Suppl 44:43-7.
3. O’Keeffe M, Purtill H, Kennedy N, Conneely M, Hurley J, O’Sullivan P, et al. Comparative effectiveness of conservative interventions for nonspecific chronic spinal pain: Physical, behavioral/psychologically informed, or combined? A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Pain 2016, Jul;17(7):755-74.
4. Louw A, Diener I, Butler DS, Puentedura EJ. The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety, and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2011, Dec;92(12):2041-56.
5. George SZ, Childs JD, Teyhen DS, Wu SS, Wright AC, Dugan JL, Robinson ME. Brief psychosocial education, not core stabilization, reduced incidence of low back pain: Results from the prevention of low back pain in the military (POLM) cluster randomized trial. BMC Med 2011;9:128.
6. Van Oosterwijck J, Meeus M, Paul L, De Schryver M, Pascal A, Lambrecht L, Nijs J. Pain physiology education improves health status and endogenous pain inhibition in fibromyalgia: A double-blind randomized controlled trial. Clin J Pain 2013, Oct;29(10):873-82.
7. Moseley GL. Evidence for a direct relationship between cognitive and physical change during an education intervention in people with chronic low back pain. European Journal of Pain 2004, Feb;8(1):39-45.