Why Do My Muscles Feel Tight?

Why do muscles feel tight? Does that mean they are short? That they can’t relax? And what can you do about it?

Here are some of my thoughts about why muscles feel tight and what to do about it.

Tightness is a Feeling, Not Just a Mechanical Condition
If you say you feel “tight” in a particular area, that might mean several different things:

Poor range of motion.

Or maybe range of motion is fine, but movement to the end range feels uncomfortable or takes excess effort.

Or maybe the problem isn’t really with movement, but just that the area never reels feels relaxed.

Or maybe the area feels basically relaxed, but has some vague sense of discomfort – a feeling that is unpleasant but too mild to be called pain.

This ambiguity means that the feeling of tightness is just that – a feeling – which is not the same thing as the physical or mechanical property of excess tension, or stiffness, or shortness. You can have one without the other.

For example, I have many clients tell me their hamstrings feel tight, but they can easily put their palms to the floor in a forward bend. I also have clients whose hamstrings don’t feel tight at all, and they can barely get their hands past their knees. So the feeling of tightness is not an accurate measurement of range of motion.

Nor is it an accurate reflection of the actual tension or hardness of a muscle, or the existence of “knots.” When I palpate an area that feels tight to a client (let’s say the upper traps), they often ask – can you feel how tight that is?!

I often say something like:

Ummmmmm …… no. It feels just like the surrounding tissues.

But I completely understand that it FEELS tight in this area and you don’t like it.

I don’t like the feeling of tightness either so I want to help you get rid of it. But the feeling of being tight isn’t the same thing as that area actually being physically tight. Make sense?

This actually does make sense to most people, and they find it mildly interesting. I want people to understand this because it might help them reconsider a misconceived plan they may have already developed for curing their tightness – such as aggressive stretching, fascia smashing, or adhesion breaking. So now they are willing to consider an approach that is a bit more subtle than driving a lacrosse ball halfway through their ribcage.

Why do muscles feel tight if they are not actually tight?
So why would a muscle feel tight even if it physically loose?

I think we can use pain as an analogy. 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 an alarm, and alarms sometimes go off even when there is no real danger.

Perhaps a similar logic is involved in the feeling of tightness. The feeling happens when we unconsciously perceive (rightly or wrongly) that there is threatening condition in the muscles that needs a movement correction.

So what is the threatening condition that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about? Surely it is not just the presence of tension – muscles are made to create tension and we often feel tightness in muscles even when they are almost completely relaxed.

So tension is not a threat, but the absence of adequate rest or blood flow is a threat, which could cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors. So the problem that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about is not the existence of tension, but the frequency of tension or the lack of blood flow (especially to nerves, which are very blood thirsty.)

With this in mind, I think of the feeling of tightness as a variety of pain, perhaps a pain too mild to deserve being called pain. But it is definitely bothersome. And it has a certain flavor or character that motivates an interest in changing resting posture, or moving around or stretching. Which is different from certain pains, which often make you want to keep still. Maybe we could say that pain is warning us to not move a certain area, while tightness is warning us to get moving.


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