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Why do Muscles Feel Tight or Stiff

Nina J. Friday, October 16, 2020

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

Think your range of motion is uncomfortably limited? These things often go together, but they don’t always, and they definitely aren’t the same. Wrapping your head around the difference is good human body user manual stuff.

Stiffness is an unpleasant sensation — it feels like something is wrong. No one ever feels comfortably stiff. So what’s wrong? If stiffness is a symptom, what’s the disease? There are many plausible causes.

Muscle stiffness is when your muscles feel tight and you find it more difficult to move than you usually do, especially after rest. You may also have muscle pains, cramping, and discomfort. Tight muscles can be caused by overuse, injury and poor posture.

This is different from muscle rigidity and spasticity. With these two symptoms, your muscles stay stiff even when you’re not moving.

Muscle stiffness usually goes away on its own. You may find relief with regular exercise and stretching. In some cases, muscle stiffness can be a sign of something more serious, especially if there are other symptoms present.

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 threat in the body, such as nociception, thoughts, emotions, memories, etc.

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.

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.

Home treatments:

You may be able to treat muscle stiffness at home with rest, massage, and application of heat or cold. Heat may work better for muscle tightness. Cold may work better for swelling and inflammation. Options include hot and cold packs, heating pads, and heat therapy patches.

Apply heat or cold to the affected area for no more than 20 minutes. Let the area rest for 20 minutes before reapplying either option. If you aren’t sure about whether to use heat or cold, call your doctor for instructions.

Stretching:

We instinctively stretch muscles that have remained in a short position for a while, and this usually makes us feel immediately better. Stretching is important for keeping muscles flexible and preventing stiffness. To decrease muscle stiffness, improve circulation, and reduce inflammation, try the following:

  • make time for regular exercise
  • stretch before and after exercise
  • take warm baths
  • massage sore areas


Exercise and resistance training:

People tend to associate strength training with becoming tighter. During exercise, muscles of course become 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.

Massage:

A common benefit of massage is the relief of tight muscles. Range of movement is restricted when muscles are tight and an increase in pain can occur. Various techniques are used within many different styles of massage to help relieve tight muscles. Our massage therapists at I Love Massage London relieve tight muscles through massage to help increase range of movement, decrease pain and increase relaxation.

There are many different types of massage that can be used to relieve tight muscles. The most common types of massage used to decrease tight muscles include:


Water is the driving force of all nature

Keeping hydrated is crucial for health and well-being, but many people do not consume enough fluids each day. Water keeps every system in the body functioning properly. Multiple studies have found that dehydration during exercise increases the chance of muscle damage and causes more muscle soreness.

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.

Various techniques including deep strokes, kneading and skin rolling are all used within the different types of massage to relieve tight muscles. Relieving tight muscles through massage can help reduce pain, prepare a person for an event and increase relaxation.

Our massage therapists at I Love Massage London relieve tight muscles through massage to help decrease restriction, reduce muscular knots and increase range of movement.

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