It is tight or is it weak?!? This question has spun it's way through the fitness and injury professions the last several years and it has become a huge controversy. We have been looking for ways to explain to people what we see with injury. The answer is we don't always know. It can actually can be both. Sometimes it is neither.
The body has a way of telling us something is wrong. It says I don't feel right. I am stressed. I am uncomfortable. We often categorize this as "tight." In reality, that feeling of "tightness" we get may just be that we have overworked or stressed a muscle group. We may have strained a muscle. It may also be the opposite. It may be that your body is underworked or weak.
Most of the time when a person feels "tight" they look for something to help them release or relieve the "tight" muscle group. This could be grabbing a foam roller to roll out the muscle, a stretch strap to stretch with, or massage gun to work out the tightness they feel in the tissue. Sometimes this works because the muscles really are tight. Sometimes it doesn't because the muscle it actually not tight at all :( .
True muscle tightness can be defined as a shortening of the length of the contractile units of the muscle. This may be due to injury, scar tissue, overuse or lack of flexibility. When a muscle is tight we can objectively measure it. We do this comparing the ROM and flexibility from one side to another. Let's just say your right hamstring feels tight after you played 90 mins in your soccer game yesterday. Today it feels tight. The length of that right hamstring can be compared to the length of the left hamstring and this will tell you truly if the right side is truly tighter than the left. If both sides have the same ROM and flexibility likely your right hamstring is not tight. So what is the problem?
Here are some explanations below:
Overuse - When muscle is asked to perform beyond its capability either in load volume or endurance it can get injured. This can result in increased tone in the muscle or a tear or disruption in the region/s of the muscle belly or tendon. This can result in a feeling of "tightness" when the muscle is really not tight at all.
Stress- We have all felt it, when our stress levels increase, pain in our body occurs. Our body has a very physical reaction to stress that is difficult to control outside of exercising methods to keep stress levels low and well managed. Stress can be an example of when we see increased tone in the body. It can make the body feel "tight".
Weakness - This is the one that stifles many people. How can the body feel tight from being weak? Your body wants to move. Your muscles need to be strengthened and activated. Lack of activation and strength in the body can result in the body feeling "tight."
Let's use the hip flexor complex as an example. The hip flexors are located on the anterior thigh and pelvis they are intimately connected to the quadriceps muscles. They are important in generating power and speed for running. They are also active in sitting and standing. They commonly feel "tight." Say you foam roll the quads, lie over a lacrosse ball to work out the tissue in your anterior hip, and stretch your hips flexors in response to always feeling "tight" but still they remain feeling chronically "tight". What do you do? Why continue to beat up on this muscle for no change?
What is the first thing you think to do to relieve your tightness? Is it one of the things we mentioned above? Have you ever experimented with activation and strengthening exercises?
Sometimes the muscle is tight and it needs some stretching soft tissue work, and low intensity activation.
Sometimes you need some education on stress management, postural education and tools to keep you moving through the day.
Sometimes you need to be instructed on a graded activation and strengthening program which includes isometrics, eccentric/concentric and functional & sports specific strengthening.
Don't keep doing the same thing without a change in the result. We call this insanity. Try something different. Get some help!
Our job as physical therapists is to identify the true cause of the pain, injury, "tightness" and work on improving that. If you are unsure why your muscle continues to feel tight go get some help from your local PT. We can help you identify the issue. We can also help you fix it !!
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Yours in strength,
Dr. Brown & Dr. Bay