When muscles feel tight, what exactly does that mean?
The feeling of tightness in muscles is related to their length and their resting tone.
Muscle length – When muscles are “short” they are resistant to stretch and therefore limit range of movement. For example, if you have reduced length in your calf muscles then they will limit the range of movement in your ankle.
Resting tone – Muscles are always “on” (that is they are receiving motor nerve input) to some extent. The degree to which they are “on” when the muscle is at rest is referred to as “resting tone”. (Note: when a muscle feels that it has “knots”, these are obviously not areas where the muscle is tied in a knot, but rather they are “trigger points” or areas within the muscle of even greater resting tone).
So when you feel that a muscle is tight, you are generally associating that feeling with the idea that the muscle is short and/or has increased resting tone. However, you may have this sensation even when a muscle has normal length and resting tone. You may also not have a sensation of muscle tightness in a muscle that is short and has increased resting tone. But, regardless, the sensation of muscle tightness in an uncomfortable, unpleasant sensation which physiotherapy can help you to alleviate.
Well that’s confusing!
It is a bit confusing, however a similar dynamic exists in terms of pain. Pain is related to “nociception” but pain can exist in the absence of nociceptive input, and pain can sometimes not be elicited by nociceptive input.
So the subjective feeling of “tightness” in a muscle is, like pain, a brain output. Things that influence the brain to feel this include sensory input from the relevant area, but also other other things going on in the brain.
This includes (but is not limited to):
Chemoreceptors which may detect chemicals associated with lack of adequate rest or lack of blood flow to the muscle
Muscle stretch receptors
Nociceptive activity in nearby joints or other nearby structures
Stress / anxiety
So how do you treat the feeling of muscle tightness?
To treat the sensation of muscle tightness most effectively, a thorough assessment should be conducted to determine potential contributors to the sensation of muscle tightness.
If the muscle is actually shortened or has increased resting tone, then this can be treated with techniques such as massage, stretching, heat packs, kinesiology taping or dry needling.
If the muscle has inadequate rest or bloodflow then this can be treated by activity modification and exercise to address biomechanical issues which are increasing the load on specific muscles.
If the muscle tightness is influenced by an injury to a nearby joint, then treatment techniques specific to the relevant joint are necessary.
Stress / anxiety / low mood can be addressed in a myriad of ways, including general exercise, sleep hygiene, breathing exercises. Serious cases may of course require pharmacological and/or counselling input.
Need help treating your muscle tightness? See our physiotherapist in Aubin Grove today!