What is tightness?

Clinical Question: What is Tightness?

People will often say that they feel tight when there is no actual mechanical shortening of the tissue.

It may be exactly that = “a feeling”

There are two types of “tightness” known as mechanical and neurological.

Mechanical tightness is when the muscle has become adaptively shortened, and needs to be lengthened.  This type of tightness is common in the hip flexors as well as the pectorals and subscapularis muscles.  Mechanical intervention such as stretching will often help relieve the tightness over a course of time with consistency of therapy being a key point.

The second type of tightness, known as neurological “tightness”, happens when the muscle is constantly being tensed or abnormal stimulated.  This type of tightness responds very quickly to mobilizations, chiropractic adjustments, soft tissue therapies (ART/Graston), kinesiology tape, and muscle stimulation. When a muscle is continuously tensed, the brain sends impulses down towards the muscle to “contract” to help keep the body in balance, which in turn feels like the muscle is tight.  Ironically this takes the body out of balance. Stretching this muscle will only make matters worse.  Areas commonly associated with neurological tightness are the hamstrings, low back, and lower trapezius muscles.

You can have one without the other.

Okay Doc, so why does my muscle feel tight if its not actually tight?

A great explanation works on a similar principal as pain.
Pain can exist even in the absence of tissue damage, because pain results from perception of threat, and perception does not always match reality. Pain is essentially a security system, but security systems sometimes go off even when there is no real danger.

Tension or “tightness” can be viewed in a similar aspect. If we piece together the research on muscle guarding and inhibition theories we come to the notion that we unconsciously perceive that there is a threatening condition in the muscle. Which makes sense, sitting hours in front of computer with your head forward is not an ideal position for your body.
Tension itself is not a direct threat, however, the absence of adequate rest or blood flow is a threat, which commonly occurs in prolonged postures and abnormal repetitive movements where the muscle is continuously being stimulated. This in term could cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors. This kicks our nervous system into action. It does not fire the flight or fight mode, but it does cause a moderate continuous stimulus along the similar neural pathway. This stimulus tells our brain that we are experiencing what we call neurological tightness. So the problem that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about is not the existence of tension, but the message that you have repeated a movement or held a position for too long. Back to the computer example; the tightness you feel after sitting hours in front of your computer or a night slept with a “kinked” neck puts that structure into abnormal stress, which is telling you to move and change position.

See it this way
Pain tells our body not to move.
Tension aka “tightness” can be seen as the body’s language to tell you to MOVE.

Tension can lead to chronic pain if left untreated. At that point the cycle of tension needs to be broken. There are many ways your health professional can accomplish this. I use the most effective and researched modalities such as specific adjustments, Active Release Technique, Graston, kinesiology tape, band flossing, and dynamic neuromuscular exercises. These tools are able to break the cycle. However, the catch is if you don’t correct the habit then it will inevitably reoccur.

When you feel stiff, remember it is a feeling, and not necessarily a physical condition of shortness that needs an aggressive solution. Like other feelings, you feel it more when you are sensitive. And like other forms of sensitivity, it will go down if you improve your overall fitness, strength, awareness, motor control, nutrition and health.

A final note: At TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) this week, the topic that came up was tightness vs. mobility. Some people feel tightness and have great mobility; others lack tightness and have great mobility. Tightness is not an indication of mobility it may however suggest instability. (Stability vs. mobility issues will be covered in another discussion) Until next time, thank you.