Tight Muscles

Why does it feel like my muscles never loosen up?

by Benjamin Kim, PT, DPT 

You stretch rigorously, do yoga regularly, foam roll every day, even tried getting massages, but that same stubborn muscle always seems to tighten right back up like a bad habit!  Whether it is tight IT bands with running, chronic neck or back tightness, or hamstrings that do not seem to loosen up, many of us can resonate with this feeling of frustration when it comes to dealing with recurrent muscle tightness.

The thing is that the problem may not be in the muscles at all.  If you tried getting massages and felt immediate relief that only lasted for a day or two, the problem is most likely not the muscle itself, but how you are using those muscles.  Let me explain.  The body is a complex organism that is constantly adapting to the demands we put on them.  When there is trauma or pain, the body automatically changes the movement pattern to protect the region that was injured or is painful (you may have experienced this when the muscles tightened up around the area that you may have injured).  The problem is that even when the area that was injured heals, the movement pattern that was developed because of the injury and pain does not necessarily return back to normal.  There have been numerous research studies looking at low back pain, and they found that the number one risk factor for low back pain is previous incident of low back pain (which supports this theory that movement changes can be the issue).  In the physical therapy world, we call this motor control dysfunction. 

Motor control dysfunction, however, is not developed only by injury, but can also be due to doing the wrong things over and over again. For example, sitting in your office chair for hours without getting up and moving will eventually tighten up your hip flexors, chest and shoulder muscles (hip joint and thoracic spine as well).  When these muscles/joint gets shortened/stiffened, it will affect the quality of your movement, thus changing the way you move, your motor pattern.  At this stage, you can try to stretch those tight muscles in your hips and chest/shoulders, but your movement pattern has already changed that it is firing the wrong muscles with basic movements making it less efficient and causing more demand on the wrong muscles.  Since you are using the wrong muscles with basic movements (such as walking or squatting), it reinforces the tight muscles to tighten back up, eventually leading to chronic tightness in those muscles that are being used incorrectly. 

You are probably thinking, ‘Ben, that sounds interesting, but what am I supposed to do help my issue’?  To correct this problem, it takes more than one approach and ultimately, it takes time.  You have to first address the mobility deficits that is affecting your movement: joint stiffness, muscle tightness etc, but more importantly you need to follow that up with stability/motor control training to teach your body to use the correct muscle/or muscles to perform specific movements.  It takes time and effort because you are trying to change a movement pattern that you have developed for years or even decades.  What feels ‘normal’ most likely is not what is normal, thus practicing moving the ‘right’ way will take a lot of coaching and practice.   

So, the next time you are foam rolling your ITB after it has tightened up for the 100th time from running, consider re-evaluating your movement pattern and think about if you are engaging and firing the correct muscles, or better yet ask yourself if you are aware of what muscles should be firing with each movement.  Understanding your movement and muscle activation may be the missing piece that you have been looking for to finally give that muscle the freedom it’s been longing for all this time.



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