by Bharat Sekhri, Registered Physiotherapist

As a physiotherapist, I’m often asked the following question: “why do my muscles tighten up and cause problems?”. My clients also wonder why the tightness reoccurs even after a Massage or Physiotherapy treatment.

I realize that there are numerous blogs which talk about how to perform a particular exercise with proper technique, however, there are none providing the important information about how muscles get tight. If we know how, then we can often prevent tightness from coming on altogether. Therefore, with this blog I will try my best to enlighten you on what muscle tightness is, why our muscles get tight in the first place, and what we can do about it.

What Is Muscle Tightness?

A muscle is considered to be tight when the desired range of motion is limited. Muscles have elastic and plastic qualities. Elasticity is the ability of the muscle to return to its pre-stretch resting length directly after a stretch force has been removed. So when we apply a stretch, the time of holding the stretch should be long enough for a muscle to attain a new and a greater length. On the other hand, plasticity is the tendency of a muscle to assume a new and greater length after the stretch force has been removed. Studies have shown that 2-3 repetitions of a 30 second or more hold for the hamstrings muscle stretch each day yielded significantly greater stretch-induced gains in range of motion than numerous 5 second stretches during the day.

Why Do Muscles Get Tight?

Now that you know what the definition of muscle tightness is, it’s time to talk about why our muscles get tight. Muscle tightness develops because of three things:

  1. Prolonged periods of inactivity or postures (think about yourself slumped over your computer for hours);
  2. Exercise without proper stretching and hydration, and;
  3. STRESS.

Inactivity or prolonged postures lead to tight and weak flexor muscles (at the front of the body) because of gravity, and weak and lengthened extensor muscles (at the back of the body) in order to compensate for that tightness. Over a period of time, this leads to imbalance and fascial tightness and eventually pain. I want to emphasize that tightness in muscles due to inactivity or prolonged postures develops over time, and therefore it is going to take time and continuous effort for muscles to return to their normal length.

The second cause of muscle tightness is a pretty obvious one – exercise without proper hydration and stretching. Tightness in a muscle often occurs when someone starts a new exercise routine or has increased the intensity and duration of the routine. Because of this overload on the muscles, they are required to work harder, which in turn leads to microscopic damage to muscle fibres, resulting in tightness and soreness. It is very important to incorporate a warm-up, stretching, a cool-down and proper hydration into your exercise routine.

Lastly, stress is the third reason for muscle tightness. So what does stress have to do with muscle tightness? Well, muscle tension results as a reflex reaction to stress. When you are stressed, your muscles go into spasm and guarding which in turn leads to tight and stiff muscles even when the stress is released. One more reason to rid stress from your life!

Whatever the cause of the your muscle tightness, it is important to get the muscles released and strengthen them frequently.

Physiotherapy Supports Balance, Strength & Range of Motion

You may wonder how a Physiotherapist can help with muscle tightness? The answer is in many different ways, both rehabilitative and preventative. Depending on our assessment, we will release tight muscles by using myofascial release, soft tissue release, dry needling, and/or specific stretching and strengthening exercises. As well, we can help prevent those muscles from tightening up again by teaching you how to maintain good posture and a healthy exercise routine.

Connect with the Physiotherapists at Life Therapies in Ottawa to find out how we can assist with restoring, maintaining and maximizing your balance, physical strength, range of motion, and overall well-being.