What you need to know: Many healthcare providers and trainers poorly understand why someone 'feels tight'. Dealing with muscle tightness is not as simple as just stretching.
The human body is designed to move and movement requires varying amounts of stability and motion. When movement occurs, patterns of stability and motion can occur in efficient or inefficient ways. As structures accommodate movement, the load placed on everything from joints to muscles and tendons to nerves changes and these changes can produce symptoms. In the process of wanting to avoid symptoms, the body will often develop compensation patterns. A common result of this compensation process is the feeling of being 'tight' or 'tension'. This tension serves a protective role, thus it is referred to as protective tension.
The development of protective tension and the reason behind its presentation is one of the least understood mechanisms in musculoskeletal care. The body is smart enough to constantly monitor loads and prevent excessive load of any given structure to ultimately help prevent injury. If you are feeling 'tight', there is a reason and your body is sending you a signal. However, many people will ignore this signal until more pressing issues develop, such as pain. So how does one handle a muscle that 'feels tight'? Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as just stretching. Stretching often provides temporary relief because of underlying joint dysfunction, stability and/or mobility deficits, or muscular weaknesses that need addressed.
To illustrate this concept, let's look at the classic example of someone with 'tight hamstrings'. The common solution many people hear from coaches, trainers, medical professionals, and the all-knowing local gym guru is, "You should stretch your hamstrings more." So the well-intentioned individual chooses to stretch their hamstrings more often because they feel they have received good advice from someone they perceive as knowledgeable.
However, the majority of people will eventually find themselves in a cycle of temporary relief from stretching. They stretch, feel better, then some time later they feel tight again. So they stretch more and more, but fail to have any sustainable results all because they received very poor advice from the start. Be critical of your information source. Just because someone owns a Mac doesn't mean they are qualified to be a programmer for Apple. Get the point?
Discovering the reason behind your tight hamstrings (or any tight muscle) is a complex process.
Here are just few common reasons why hamstrings develop protective tension:
The anterior pelvic tilt is a common posture seen today. As the pelvis rotates forward due to stability and muscular control issues, this places stress on the hamstrings since they attach directly to the pelvis. Not only is this a static posture consideration, but also applies to dynamic posture or essentially the posture one assumes while moving. Movement will place greater stress on the anterior and posterior abdominal slings. These slings serve as a link between your shoulders, spine, and hips. Weakness in their ability to control pelvic and spinal movements, such as rotation and extension, can create overactive or tight hamstrings. In this case, the hamstrings will continue to feel tight until the underlying issue of correcting posture and pelvic/spinal stability are improved.
Peripheral nerves, such as the sciatic, have their own unique biomechanics to allow for movement of the arms or legs. Nerves are surrounded and encased by muscle/connective tissue, so they need to be able to 'slide' through tissue during movement. If they can't slide, tension develops because nerve tissue is highly sensitive and can be injured very easily if too much stress is applied to it. Hamstring tightness can be attributed to the sciatic nerve or its branches, the tibial and common peroneal nerves, being entrapped within the hamstrings and/or calves. The detection of neural tension requires specialized training. Those that are qualified utilize specific soft tissue work and neural mobilizations tailored to treat neural tension.
This is common in athletes and runners because of repetitive use. Adhesive tissue can develop within musculature in response to overuse, thus affecting how a muscle contracts and lengthens. Typically a muscle that does not lengthen appropriately will create the feeling of tightness. Again, specific soft tissue work is tailored to treat adhesive tissue and allow for proper hamstring function.
Abnormal joint mechanics will alter muscle function. If joint centration or how the joint moves is altered, this will alter length-tension relationships of muscles surrounding the joint. This affects muscle function and will potentially place tension on the hamstrings. These are best addressed by joint mobilizations or adjustments/manipulations. Licensed chiropractic professionals are well trained in identifying abnormal joint mechanics and the impact it has on the body and nervous system.
Protective tension in a muscle develops for various reasons and must be examined accordingly. At Gallagher Performance, our assessments are used to identify protective tension and why it is present. This provides us with the information needed to design the most appropriate course of treatment and client education.