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Top 5 Reasons for Muscle Tension

Hello, and happy new year! I’m sure many of you (like myself) have started off this year with some new fitness goals in mind. Often times when we begin exercising more we become keenly aware of tight spots, sore spots, stiff spots, you name it. I have clients ask me all the time if I can feel a “knot” in their (fill in the blank), and then they ask where the knots come from. This post is hopefully going to answer that common question.

A "knot" is simply a muscle in its contracted state. Ranging from a full on muscle spasm (complete contraction), to tense muscle fibers (semi-contracted). Below I give the top five reason’s for muscle tension…in my experience.

1. Muscle imbalance. On either side of each joint is a set of muscles, the agonist and the antagonist. An example would be your biceps and triceps in the upper arm. The biceps on the front contract to bend your arm at your elbow, your triceps on the back contract to straighten your arm. If you have poor posture, do repetitive movements, overuse a certain set of muscles, stay in the same position for too long, etc. it is easy to have one set of these muscles become tight and shortened while the opposite set becomes stretched and weakened.

Over time this imbalance can cause joint pain, but because of compensation it can eventually affect your entire body. For instance, if you sit for a good portion of the day you are going to have tight/shortened hip flexors and likely weakened glutes and hamstrings. This imbalance is setting you up bigtime for low back pain and eventually it could even affect your hips and knees. Another example is if you spend a lot of time at your computer, or driving, or really doing anything in front of your body for a long period of time, you will have tight/shortened chest muscles and weakened mid back muscles, eventually leading to upper back and neck pain and even headaches.

In these two examples you would want to stretch the tight/shortened muscles and strengthen the weakened ones. But more importantly do things to break up the time in that position to begin with. If you're on a road trip build in time to make multiple stops to get out of the car and walk around. If it's nice outside lay in the grass and do some bridge lifts and/or a couple squats to wake up your glutes. If you're sitting at the computer for a big chunk of the day, get up and walk around and stretch your chest. Then squeeze your shoulder blades together like you're trying to hold a pencil between them so you can wake up your mid-back muscles. In this case you should probably stretch your hip flexors and wake up your glutes too, unless you have a standing desk set-up.

2. Protection. Sometimes muscle spasm is your body's way of preventing movement, thus preventing further damage to the area. This is very common following an acute injury, nerve irritation, whiplash, car accident or trauma injury, herniated disc, joint inflammation, etc. Our bodies are so innately amazing that they will literally "splint" themselves. The only problem with this automatic self-splinting after injury is that our bodies aren't as good at going back to that muscle and saying "hey, we're all good now, you can relax.".

Another fascinating thing I have noticed countless times over the years is that when this protective spasm occurs during a traumatic injury like whiplash from a car accident, that muscle contraction is also connected to the stress response. So, for instance, I've had many clients in that situation start feeling better like their neck muscles were finally letting go and then something stressful happens and their muscles just tighten right back up. (Just a little reminder that everything’s connected).

3. Dehydration. This can affect the muscle tissue itself and/or the surrounding tissue called fascia. Fascia is a connective tissue that consists of collagen and elastin fibers and can be found throughout the body. But as it relates to muscles, it wraps around each muscle, each muscle fiber, and each muscle cell. Research shows that dehydration can make fascia adhere together, and when it gets "sticky" or "stuck" it doesn't allow the muscles to properly slide past each other during movement. This can cause stiffness and pain in the muscle. Just drinking extra water doesn't necessarily fix the problem, many times you need a soft tissue treatment like massage to get those fascial layers unstuck and lubricated – and keep drinking the water so it doesn’t happen again.

4. Poor sleeping position. If you wake up feeling stiff and sore it's important to evaluate how you're sleeping at night. Ideally you want to find a position that maintains proper spinal alignment and doesn't put too much pressure on your joints.

First thing to evaluate is your mattress. Finding a mattress that is firm enough to support your joints, but not so hard that you are uncomfortable. A squishy mattress feels good to fall asleep on, but often times you wake up feeling achy because your joints receive more and more pressure throughout the night as you sink further into the mattress. That said, everyone is different so it’s important to find out what works for you. For me if a mattress is too soft my low back hurts, for my husband if a mattress is too hard it hurts his shoulders. Hence the reason we have a Sleep Number bed!

Second thing to evaluate is your pillow. If you are a side sleeper you want one that fills in the space between where your shoulder is on the mattress and where your head is maintaining a neutral position, so the broader your shoulders, the thicker the pillow. Otherwise, you will naturally find yourself tucking your arm underneath to get that extra lift to avoid neck pain, but what you may gain is shoulder pain. Sleeping on your back is said to be best for your spine but then you might struggle with snoring and sleep apnea, belly sleeping can help sleep apnea but is terrible for your neck and low back...all I can say is if you sleep on your back or your belly just make sure your pillow is thin enough that it isn't kinking your neck.

The last thing to consider is sleep position. Do you sleep with your arm above your head and have shoulder pain? Do you wake up on your stomach and have low back pain? Is your pillow super thick/thin and you wake up with neck pain? These are important things to ask yourself when trying to figure out if your achy body is coming from how you're sleeping.

5. Stress and anxiety. We all hold stress differently, and it manifests itself in different ways for each and every person. You've heard the phrase "carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders", well, for some this is true. Some people are butt-clinchers when they're stressed (yes, that’s a thing), some are leg shakers, some people shallow breathe or hold their breath, and sometimes we have old injuries that become weak spots where stress will manifest. Bottom line is that stress and anxiety can certainly cause muscle tension.

Okay guys, now that we have discussed the most common reasons for knots in your muscles, what can be done to help? I would start by paying attention to daily routines and postures, take note of what makes things feel better/worse, and actively correct the body's alignment and movement.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Massage therapy to release short, tight muscles and soft tissues like fascia.

  • Chiropractic manipulation to realign joints that have shifted.

  • Strengthening exercises for the over-stretched and weakened set of muscles.

  • Identify the variables that are contributing to the imbalance and avoid those triggers/positions/stresses.

  • Stretch daily and move your body.

  • Be proactive, not reactive. Get ahead of the pain by maintaining balance in your body before your body starts talking to you, aka hurting.

It’s so easy for us to live our lives in our heads, but to avoid pain we really need to check in with our bodies often. How’s your body feeling?

If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear from you!

Much love.

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