I often have clients ask me why they’re so “tight”. I place the term “tight” between quotations delicately; In some cases, it may be the correct term, but in many others, it is not. Regardless of terminology, the perception remains the same in the eye of the proprioceptor, and the bottom line is that they just want that tight muscles feeling to take a hike.
While there are always exceptions to any rule, it is often the case that the folks that complain of feeling tight in a particular area, their tissue doesn’t “feel” tight upon palpation and they often don’t exhibit restricted range of motion that would indicate tight musculature.
So let’s start with this:
What are tight muscles, anyway?
In a very unscientific survey of a random bunch of people I know, I sought out some descriptions of what people thought tight meant for them. I first asked if they had any areas of their body that they’d describe as being “tight”. If they responded affirmatively (and everyone did), I asked them to identify how they’d describe their tight muscles in that area using terminology other than “tight”. In some cases, I offered them a theraband and asked them to show me what they thought their muscles were doing in that area. In every case, they identified the muscles in their tight area as being significantly shorter. For many of us, this holds true; we believe that tight = short.
At the risk of oversimplifying to keep this palatable for a non-expert audience, I’m going to argue that shortened muscles are one variety of tight that we feel in the body, but that having physically shortened muscles is often not the case for the areas that people describe as tight.
What I think most people often perceive as being “tight” are actually areas where muscles are locked in an elongated position. It might be helpful to think of this as your muscle being long and taut, versus the short and tight that many of us think of. Our muscles can be either be positioned or locked long or short. Positioned would indicate that the shortening or lengthening of the muscle is postural, and that you could move yourself out of that particular position. Locked short or long would indicate that you’re stuck in that position and need a hand to try to change the muscle length.
The shoulders: A prime example
The shoulders offer a prime example of this perception of tightness in the body. The vast majority of clients who end up on my table complain of some variety of tightness in the neck/shoulder/upper back region – generally between the shoulder blades. Many even ask that their entire treatment focus on that area only. Put simply, they feel tight there and think that an hour of rubbing that area will lengthen the muscles and make them feel better.
In actuality, most people – symptomatic or not – don’t have shortened muscles in the shoulders and upper back. While there are a few muscles in the neck (upper trap, levator scapula) that are tight, In fact, the bulk of the muscles in this region are generally overstretched and positioned or stuck in this lengthened position – something we might also call inhibited. That is, they can’t do their job because they’re just hanging on. We’d definitely want to do some work in that area to help the muscles contract a bit better, we would also want to spend time focusing on the muscles in the front of the body that are contributing to the tight muscles in the back being too long. This work would lengthen in the front and shorten in the back, or basically the exact opposite of what most people think they need.
If my muscles aren’t shortened, then why do I feel tight?
So in a case where the muscles in question are not actually tight or exhibiting decreased range of motion, why do they feel tight? I have a few different theories on this (some, all, or none of which may be heading in the right direction…)
- Semantics: We’re saying tight, but we actually mean another sensation that we may not have the vocabulary for. The muscles aren’t doing their job, you feel that, but the only word you have to describe it is tight.
- Simplistic Sensory Signaling: The muscle in question is feeling something isn’t right, and it is sending a signals to let you know. Perhaps the difference between tight and overstretched, overworked, irritated, or whatever isn’t something your brain can distinguish between. However you slice it, the body is perceiving a sensory input
- Pain Begets Pain: It is pretty commonly understood in pain science that the longer (and more) we hurt, the more likely we are to become oversensitive to the sensory input causing the pain. While I have some hesitation equating a tight sensation to pain, it would make at least some sense that similar patterning could occur for other types of sensation.
- Nerve Sensitization: Perhaps the sensation is more nerve related and less muscle related?
However you slice it, you’ll want to work with someone who understands the postural patterns and is able to help you balance them with some combination of manual therapy, exercises, stretching, and movement repatterning. Even if we don’t entirely understand why things are perceived as tight when they’re not physically shortened, we do have techniques to help achieve a normal daily life with less perceived pain and tightness.
Photo by Olenka Kotyk