Why Are Certain Muscles Constantly Tight?

The next time you're at the gym, if you pay close attention, you might notice that the same people are constantly working on the same muscle groups. Why is that? In order to really understand why a muscle gets “tight,” we need to take a small step back and look at the anatomy and physiology of how a muscle works.

The main job of the muscles in your body is movement (Obvious, I know). As a muscle contracts/shortens/tightens, it moves a skeletal structure from one position to another.

The Receptor System

The second job of muscles is one that people might be aware of but usually don’t understand completely. The second function of muscles is to provide your brain with feedback regarding your position sense (posture) and balance. Muscles and joints of the body have stretch receptors and mechanoreceptors. These are similar to sensors throughout an automobile that provide the main computer with information about tire pressure, oil life, and engine temperature. Your brain takes the information it receives from these receptors and uses it to make changes to the muscles throughout the body to keep you upright and balanced.

What happens when there’s a problem with this receptor system?

Imagine what would happen if there was a problem with one of the sensors in your car. Likewise, what would happen if there were issues with the internal electrical wiring? You might start to get feedback about problems that aren’t really there. As a result, you might start to make changes to the car based on that information, that causes further problems.

The spinal bones in the top part of the neck are very freely moveable and can become very unstable. When bones in the upper part of the spine shift out of place, it causes the head to tilt or rotate to one side, and stay locked in that position. We all have a built-in reflex called the “righting reflex” where our body will do whatever it can to keep our eyes level with the horizon. When the head and necked are locked in a tilted or rotated position, the rest of the body will begin to turn, twist, and rotate until the eyes are level again.

Over time, this leads to a number of structural changes throughout the body. For some, it will cause the head to shift forward relative to the chest. For others, it might cause uneven shoulders, scoliotic curves in the spine, or changes in the alignment of the pelvis, causing it to rotate forward or backward, or causing one side to be higher than the other. These changes in the underlying structure eventually develop into the tight muscles we commonly see in the upper part of the shoulders, the mid back, hamstrings, and quads. In most cases, muscle spasm, pain, pinched nerves and postural changes are what we call secondary conditions.

Circling Back

Sometimes muscles tighten up due to an aggressive workout or activity where the muscles were challenged more than usual. In that case, using a foam roller or lacrosse ball might be an effective way of managing the spasm. In other cases where people find themselves trying to massage the same area over and over, the problem might actually be caused by a shift in the underlying spinal structure. In that case, the muscles are tight because the brain is being fed bad information and thus is sending bad information back out to the muscles causing them to remain tight or contracted. No amount of foam rolling or massage is going to solve the problem because it’s not a problem with the muscle, but a problem with the internal wiring of the body.

Structural chiropractors look at the alignment of each region of the spine, closely measuring and comparing a patient’s spine to what we know to be normal. After detecting abnormal shifts, a plan of care is designed specific to the patient’s findings. By correcting the underlying structure and directing the spine back to normal, the receptors and muscles along the spine begin functioning the way they’re supposed to. When the structure is back to normal, it changes the signals being sent to the brain, which alters the signals traveling from the brain to the muscles. In this way, a muscle spasm can be corrected without having to poke and prod at the muscle, because the brain is no longer “telling” the muscle to stay contracted. Patients often find that after the underlying structure is corrected, their bodies are much more responsive when they do need foam rollers or massage therapy.

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