4 Reasons Why You Have Tight Muscles and What To Do About It

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Imagine you have just stepped wrong, twisted too much or maybe you just woke up and like the 70’s Batman TV Show BAM! POW!   Everything just locks up.

You immediately scream in pain and then do what everyone does in this scenario..ask your friends on FACEBOOK what you should do.

After sorting through Amazon ads that offer whatever you were just thinking about you get to the hippie granola friend offering  voodoo chant or chicken bones/dice mixed with essential oils and similar advice.

Then you see exactly what you were looking for in the first place.  Confirmation of what you already believe.

“Stretch and Heat” – it’s a muscle spasm after all – stretch that sucker, relax it like melted taffy.

You see it over and over on your FB post – the info we all hear and have heard since our early High School days.

Makes sense I guess, Mr. Timm,  my PE teacher,  said it back in ’89 so it must have withstood the test o’ time.

Here’s why most likely that advice is WRONG and why YOU ARE DOING THE WRONG THING.

4 Reasons why you experience muscle tightness

  1. A basic muscle contraction.  

So this is the basic, what everyone thinks they have.  You could have a muscle that is just a little too tight and needs a stretch.  Think of a bicep flexed –  that’s a fine analogy.        The muscle is shortened, the joints come a bit closer together and you just need to relax this baby.  This is typical a day or two after the gym, after a long run or when starting up exercise again. Muscles can and do get tight and some of the basic stuff from our high school track days still apply.  Throw a little heat in there like a hot shower or manual work like a massage and man, “that feels gooooood”    It’s a moderately OK warmup (as in there is better –it’s the future after all) and when applicable it’s fine.

But this is NOT what you have I’d bet.   If you’re to the point you’re seeking advice, keep reading.

But here’s the rub (the 1st of multiple)  – this is almost NEVER what happens with an  injury.

  1. An elongation of a muscle

This might seem counter intuitive so try to keep your head from exploding as I drop the science like the Beastie Boys in ’94.

Most muscle injuries and in my opinion, nearly ALL OF THEM on your posterior side, such as hamstrings #1, Low back #2, Traps, neck and butt (think sciatic stuff here) are muscles that are too long.

WHAT??   Tight muscles that are too long? ..puh!  impossible!

Keeping with our earlier analogy of the flexed bicep again, it’s simple and makes a point.  Go ahead, flex that baby – nice…feel your bicep flexed.  Now, straighten your arm.  All the way, as if you were going to hyperextend your elbow.   Funny how the bicep still seems tight isn’t it?

That’s right, despite being too long, that elastic muscle is still way too tight and hence, the mistake that most of us make when self treating.

An elongation of a muscle shouldn’t stretch at all, it should shorten into a more proper and pain free position.

How does this apply to you?   I’ll tell you first how it applies to me.  I see people in my clinic that have had the same IT band issue or “sciatic tightness” and have diligently stretched the area for weeks with no change.

They are treating it all wrong..  How it applies to you is that often, YOU are the fool doing it all wrong.  So stop it

“But it feels so good..”   (see) Therapy vs Therapeutic…And why you’re screwed.

True, extra blood to the area does feel good but you are creating a poor therapy loop and not improving your condition and you are seriously hijacking your recovery.   I don’t care what feels good, you want to improve yes?

The problem is with flexibility.  A term that is thrown around way too much and should have basically died in the 1990’s.   In the modern era we want to look at “mobility” or simply, how the body works in movement.   I don’t care so much about your hamstring flexibility when tested by a sit and reach test but more about how your hamstring works in a real world application such as the back, hip, knee and ankle all bending together as you lift something off the ground…MOBILITY!

Remember in the 90’s when an Olympian or NFL player went down with a hammy?  The trainer would run out and immediately start stretching that baby.  You ever see that nowadays?  NO WAY! –maybe for a cramp (different post)  Electrolytes – Dude, You need some but not a pulled muscle.  The hammy almost always is injured in a “fast stretch” elongation injury.  DON’T stretch it.

Moral of the story here? Don’t stretch it unless you know for sure.  Could you be OVERSTRETCHING?    My advice… assume elongation – I think it 90% of the cases.  I can test most areas to see, you may or may not be able to do so.  I don’t know your education or body awareness.  I don’t have the book out yet to explain this all –

I will offer you this though.  Try whatever you want but if you don’t feel serious improvement, say 85% better sensation AND movement in 4 treatments try something different than what you’re doing.   In other words, If you’ve tried something 4 times and it hasn’t helped, try something else, possibly the opposite.  How do you think I figured all this out anyway?

  1. Protection along the spine

This is the big papa of them all.  You will almost always get moderate to severe muscle spasm along the spine with any issue.   Simple but painful conditions like a rib out of place or a disc strain cause a HUGE spasm, and there for a HUGE amount of MIS – TREATMENT.

I can explain this as well (imagine that!)

This time let’s imagine a sprained ankle – immobile, black and blue, and swollen up like a thanksgiving turkey.  OUCH – now you all know not to heat and stretch this injury correct?  The acronym RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) has made it common recovery and first aid even my grade-schoolers understand.

“So what chad?  It’s not my ankle that hurts right now, my freaking back is all locked up and killing me!”

Well, most issues along the spine are like this, they are sprains or medically, stresses to the ligaments and connective tissue.  Most likely a disc in the lower back or a rib in the middle and upper back.    (Disc strain hurts to cough or sneeze and especially hurt change position with getting out of bed and the car the worst…Ribs feel like you’re being stabbed when you breath deep)

http://www.armadillosportchiropractic.com/disc-injuries  (more on a disc strain)

And as promised, Rub #2 – the spine really can’t allow for swelling like the ankle because there is all kinds of important stuff in that area.  Lots of nerves, important blood vessels and oh yeah, the spine.  That’s important.   So the body being the miracle of God that it is finds another way to immobilize the area and make it tough to move around so you don’t make it worse by being stupid.  It locks up all the muscles in the area.

The lock down is a protection mechanism to slow you down and not allow you to bend and twist quickly or move your neck to back out of the driveway when you’re late and in a hurry because your neck/back is killing you and you can’t move fast.

That’s smart!  Your body is thinking for you…

Trouble is, it’s a muscle that’s all spasmed and tightened and easy to feel because it’s TIGHT.

So all of us- you, the doctors, chiros, massage therapists, PT’s, foam roller masters, trainers or well wishing friends and family can feel this.

“Darn Mel, that’s one tight back, you want me to sit on you and stretch that out for ya?”

But see, the muscle isn’t the issue.  The issue is the disc or the rib and although usually a very simple and small issue, it hurts like crazy because there are millions of nerves RIGHT THERE so you want to DO SOMETHING.    Remember, the issue is NOT the muscle – most likely its inflammation at the strain.  Inflammation doesn’t respond well to heat at all.  Nor stretch, Nor Therapy Balls, Nor massage, Nor metal Tools, doorknobs, desk Corners or your spouse’s best intentions and rub downs.

In fact all your best intentions to relax the muscle, bring some heat to the area and stretch it out have an immediate feedback loop to your sore body.  The injured area feels this and relays the info to your brain, similar to this…(use airline terminal voice) ”Say brain, I’m getting some strange responses here.  Too much movement, inflammation is getting worse and this just isn’t safe, why don’t you just ratchet up this muscle a little tighter for a while until were out of the storm.”

An ever continuing spiral of despair and pain and this can go on for weeks!

Treat the inflammation. Treat the actual problem.    Ice that thing.   Inflammatory treatment all the way, or at a minimum, at least don’t heat it and stretch it and do the wrong thing!

you’ve heard the poor advice…48 hours of ice, followed by 48 hours of heat and then contrasting ice and then 48 hours of heat sounded good from your coach in high school and all of us have heard this great-sounding-but- based-on-nothing-other-than-sounding-good-and-easy-to-remember-seminar-type-advice.

That advice is wrong – if it’s inflamed treat is as such, treat the problem, not the hours.

Some athletes are inflamed for weeks because of their sport, some people have immuno-problems or dietary reactions that keeps them inflamed for weeks, some people have to go to work or have kids or live a real life and keep it inflamed for weeks.

Here’s another way I can maybe help out.  I ask all my clients 2 questions for any back issue.

Q1) Does your injury respond to anti-inflammatory (think advil or aleve) medication?

Does this make it feel better, even takes off the edge?

If yes, guess what?  You’re inflamed.  There’s no pain reliever in most anti-inflammatories, just anti-inflammatory…so if that works, adding stretch and or heat, which brings more blood is a “pro-inflammatory” .  The opposite of the medicine.  Despite that  “slap your forehead and say ‘a-ha’ – cartoon lightbulb floating above your cranium” moment I still hear the standard low back protocol at the ER is 800 mg Ibuprofen and hot shower or massage..    BUZZ , wrong..  they are the opposites, a chemistry equation that does not equal – This terrible advice is great for my day to day employment as a chiropractor but we can all be better.  We’re all smart and can figure this stuff out.

Q2) Does a hot shower make it feel great….for like ten minutes and then you can’t put on your socks the pain is so much worse?

Right.  C’mon man.  I don’t need to explain this all again correct.

I’m including this brief Follow up  because people naturally just want to hear what they already believe and a couple of these ideas may have just shaken your belief system.  I’ve been doing this for 15 years so I’m going to give you a little bonus Q and A.

(the Q is the patient, the A is me..)

Q: “but really?, it feels so good”

A:   “sorry.  I know, ice doesn’t feel as therapeutic as heat – but often what feels good does not equal healing you for some conditions.”

Q: “something that small, like a little strain, can’t hurt like this right?  This is a 9/10 here doc”

A:  “ever had a paper cut?  A piece of dust in your eye?”

Right, pain is such a liar.  Most often it’s all dependent on the amount of nerves in the area that dictate the pain not the severity of the injury.  There are tons of nerves in the fingers, eyeballs, reproductive organs and along the ribs and discs, they hurt.

One more reason…. #4 – cramps or charlie horse.  Easy fix as it’s usually nutritional – you most likely need electrolytes in your system…see here-  (I’ve written on this one already)


Q: “screw you Mr. know-it-all think youre so smart doctor guy.  I’m just going to do what I believe is right despite long term fails.”

A:  OK, I made that one up.  Maybe they think that..but just try the above advice and see if it doesn’t help you make better informed decisions on your health and on your own body – thanks for hanging with me –

I know this article was a little longer but I often preach “simple explanation”  Explanation takes time and I hate advice without knowing the “why.”  Now it should be simple to understand.

BIGLike Biggie said, “And if you don’t know, now you know!

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