“I feel really tight…..it’s nice” – Said no one ever
I have lost count of the times I have had patients come in complaining that their muscles feel “tight” or that they feel “stiff”. This feeling may or may not be accompanied by pain and is generally a fairly constant thing that increases or decreases without rhyme or reason. Additionally, these people often tried everything under the sun; from stretching to heat to supplements, all to no avail. People will resort to “adjustments” from chiros, releases from massage therapist or hours on end of hot yoga, all to try to alleviate this tightness. I feel your pain (Tightness, as the case may be), I can fully empathize with this sensation of feeling stiff and tight. I can’t even remember a time when my hammies and upper traps haven’t felt tight. Let us try to delineate some of the possible causes for this annoying phenomenon.
We must first separate something important from the get-go. THIS IS NOT TO DO WITH YOUR MUSCLES LENGTH. Tightness/stiffness is very rarely a range of motion issue unless you have certain conditions e.g. Parkinson’s or brain injury. Interesting fact to prove my point – In a poll of hyper-mobile people 80% reported that they felt MORE stiff than the average person. The polar opposite being true as well – people with crappy range or flexibility can feel perfectly fine. So don’t assume that just because you feel tight that you are literally tight or shortened in those muscles.
“Normal” range doesn’t even truly exist anyway. Sure, we have averages out there for what we are generally looking for but what is “normal” is dependent purely the individual and what they need that joint or muscles to be able to do in their daily life. Case in point, swimmers and baseball throwers require huge ranges of shoulder motion that would be considered abnormal by any relevant measure. Although a cool trick to bring out at parties, being able to do the splits has no bearing on well, anything really.
Inflammation, a big word that gets thrown around a lot. Tissue inflammation can definitely cause tissue irritation and thus stiffness & tightness. “Inflammaging” ( I promise that’s a real term that I didn’t just make up right at this moment) is a combo of inflammation and aging. Put simply, it means is that as we age we get more inflamed and therefore a feeling of more stiffness. Just like with Arthritis, some people get it worse than others – blame the genetic lottery folks. However, this doesn’t answer the question of why many young people feel stiff. There are many possible causes but the most likely explanation is our good old friend muscle knots/trigger points.
Trigger points are super common pressure-sensitive soft patches of the muscle that may be active (acutely painful) or latent (hurts with pressure applied). Think of them as mini-cramps in the muscle giving that sensation that the muscle is “tight”. This explains why there is often not an actual tissue extensibility problem. Although we don’t know exactly why they appear, we do at least know what they respond to and they can be treated relatively well if the therapist knows what they are doing. I like to think we here at Rozelle Physio know what we are doing when treating these pesky spots 😉
Finally, we come to psychogenic stiffness. Those stressed at work know all too well this feeling of stress-induced “tightness” (the neck often feeling it worst). Amazingly, the mere fact that you believing you are stiff could result in feeling that way. A self perpetuating stiffness you might say. There may then, therefore, be some credence then in freeing up the mind to free the body. State of mind equals state of body – possibly……… can’t hurt to try think loose thought!
– Your muscles are not chronically short
– Aging and inflammation have a role to play in the tight sensation
– Trigger points are also a biggie – Thankfully they can be treated!!
– Think loose thoughts 🙂