“Have you tried stretching, foam rolling, and massage for years but your muscles seem to tighten back up?”

A problem we all know too well. . . 

Have you had a muscle that is perpetually ‘tight’? You have tried stretching it for years, foam rolling until it hurt, frequent massages, different instrument assisted modalities, or even something like dry needling, and it might give you some relief for a day or two, but that stubborn muscle seems to tighten right back like a rubber band.

What is really going on?

The issue might be that the underlying problem is not the tight muscle itself, but the lack of ‘stability’ that is causing the muscle to tighten up. Let me explain.

Laying the foundation

Our musculoskeletal system is made up of bone, muscle, joint, cartilage, ligaments, etc. You can say that these are the structural part that make up the body just like the exterior of the car or the hardware of a computer. What drives these structures to function cohesively, like a motor of a car or software in a computer, is the neuromuscular system. Millions of nerves fire in a coordinated way that commands these muscles to contract, relax, and ultimately control our movements.

How your body works

If we are lacking stability in certain joints in our body, such as the cervical/lumbar spine or shoulder/scapular region, our body can sense the vulnerable unstable region and it will automatically send signals to the brain to fire certain muscles to provide the stability that the body believes that it needs. This process is purely involuntary, and it can also become a chronic adaptation of how your body’s normal state becomes. This might be why your neck is constantly tight even though you just stretched it for several minutes or just got a massage yesterday.

Is stretching and foam rolling useless?

I am not saying that stretching, massage, foam rolling, or different modalities are bad or ineffective. It is valuable for pain management and improving function. However, if you are lacking stability in these regions, you will not be addressing the root cause of the problem, but more just the symptoms.

How do you find relief?

The solution to these types of instability issues are specific motor control exercises that focus on the coordination of muscles firing and building up endurance in these muscles. It is different than strength training in that the primary focus is to learn to utilize the correct muscles that have been dormant due to the compensatory movement patterns that the body has developed.

If you are someone who is having chronic tightness in their hip flexors, upper traps, SCM, lumbar spine muscles, or shoulder muscles and have tried different passive approaches to treatment with little success, you might be dealing with an underlying stability issue. Call and set up a free consult at Mettler Center where a physical therapist can provide a thorough assessment and help you understand what the underlying issue is.

Physical therapist, Dr. Ben Kim, PT, DPT

Benjamin Kim, PT, DPT  is a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy at Mettler Center. 

Call 217-398-9800 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with a physical therapist.