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That “TIGHT” Muscle May Actually be a “WEAK” Muscle

Carpenters Wellness CenterSenad Sabanagic, DPT | Jan 17, 2024

One of the most common reasons patients seek orthopedic care is for aches and pains related to “tight” muscles. Often a tight neck, low back, etc., keeps you from comfortably driving, bending to pick up tools, or stand for long periods. If you’re spending a lot of time stretching only to notice short term relief, then you might be surprised to find out the issue is actually a weak muscle instead of a tight muscle. What you’re feeling isn’t “tightness” but… weakness.

Asking your muscle to perform actions or tolerate positions which it might not be ready to handle may cause it to feel fatigued. Think of muscle tension being similar to pain; the “pain” is typically not the problem but a message in response to a problem.

In some cases, a muscle may feel “tight” because it has actually physically shortened and requires stretching in order to lengthen it again. But, in other cases, you may feel tense because your muscles are increasing their natural tension to provide a passive “pseudo-strength.” A muscle increases it’s natural tenson as a response to lacking the strength, endurance, or even due to poor inflammation management around tissue. Stretching that tissue will never correct the issue, and you will constantly be “stuck” in a cycle which can get harder to break with time. 

Why does massage or stretching help “short term” if the problem is strength? Your strength is impaired by inflammation surrounding a muscle or joint. Inflammation is a normal part of life that occurs with all activities. It’s impacted by a lot of factors including diet, quality sleep, and stress. Inflammation is well managed by movement. Stretching a muscle or joint will help get rid of inflammation via the lymphatic system which carries 85% of the inflammation in our body.  Removing inflammation helps “turn on” our muscle fibers that were impaired causing us to be weaker temporarily. This lymphatic system is not very deep, it lies in a layer of fascia between our skin and muscles. Managing inflammation isn’t as always difficult as preventing it.

Massage will help guide the inflammation away and the pressure helps stimulate muscle fibers below to “turn on” fibers temporarily. Stretching and massage are great tools for short term relief to get through a day of work or an activity. Unfortunately, they do not build muscle long term. The only way to build muscle is through exercise -it takes work! Exercise increases the size of fibers which provides more strength or endurance to stand longer, walk further, and lift more effectively so you no longer feel “tension” in muscles from these activities. Physical therapists specialize in guiding you gradually through strength + endurance exercises to make activities more comfortable without that pain or “tightness” in your muscles. 

Physical therapy services are included in your benefits under the health plan. Peak Sport & Spine is your go-to source for physical therapy at no additional cost to you, with no copays for services provided. Peak Sport & Spine has two therapists located in Carpenters Wellness Center, but you also have access to most Peak Sport & Spine location in all of Missouri, Illinois, and eastern Kansas. You may call any Peak Sport & Spine clinic as a Union Carpenter or dependent covered under the health plan and be seen without a doctor’s note, insurance pre-authorization, or having seen any other prior healthcare provider. We look forward to working with you to get back doing what you want to do without the limitation of pain or stiffness. 

Tasha R. Stanton, G. Lorimer Moseley, Arnold Y. L. Wong, & Gregory N. Kawchuk. (2017). Feeling stiffness in the back: A protective perceptual inference in chronic back pain. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-12.

Hargrove, T (2017) Why do muscles feel tight? Physio-Network

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