Tight muscles can make us feel uncomfortable, restrict our movement and hinder our sports performance. They can cause injuries and impair our ability to do everyday activities or hobbies. Knowing how to manage a tight muscle will come in handy at some stage for everyone, but it might surprise you to know that the management can be very different depending on where the tension is, and what its behaviour is like.
Mostly people think they need to stretch a tight muscle; it is quite an instinctive impulse. And sometimes you should. But it’s not always appropriate. One thing that is going to affect how you should manage a tight muscle is if it is truly tight. What I mean is, does it just feel stiff and tight? Or is it truly short? This may be a hard thing for you to determine on your own, but your physio will likely be able to establish the difference. For example, if you just injured your neck and suddenly feel a lot of tightness in the muscles running up one side when you try and turn your head, do you think this muscle has suddenly shortened? Or perhaps your body is making it feel tighter to protect you from injuring yourself further? In that scenario, holding your neck at its end range of motion for 30 to 60 seconds may make us feel worse, not better, so static stretching, the often go-to management of tight muscles, is not actually appropriate.
If a muscle feels tight because you are in pain (which is a very common problem in our patients), managing the pain is going to reduce the tightness. If stretching reduces the pain, great! If it doesn’t, advice and encouragement, medication, heat, ice, massage, foam rolling, or manual therapy (just to name a few) may be far more beneficial.
If a muscle feels tight secondary to a certain activity, it is likely that one of two things is occurring. One, the way in which you are doing that activity is not ideal, or two, you are not strong enough to be doing that task. For example, if every time you sit at your computer for an hour or more you get tightness in between your shoulder blades, then you might need to check in with how you are sitting. Stretching that muscle is not going to matter one bit if you return straight back to a slouched position. In actual fact, those muscles may already be sitting in a stretched position which is causing the pain and tension! If, however, your tightness is coming on in your calf or hamstring every time you run, particularly at a certain pace or distance, then it may be that your muscle is tight because it is working very hard to perform this task. In this instance, you can stretch to your heart’s content, but that tightness will keep coming back until you strengthen the muscle enough so it has the capacity to perform the task. It may feel odd to go away and load a muscle that already feels tight but research has shown that this is one of the only true ways to genuinely increase the length of a muscle.
If you have short-term muscle tension, try stretching (amongst other things) to try and manage it. For anything more long-term or recurrent, come and see one of the team at Healthzone Physio for a management plan that may address the underlying causes, rather than briefly improving the symptoms.