Why is my muscle tight?

As a treating Osteopath at Fitzroy North Premier Sports & Spinal Medicine,  I hear this question every day. There can be many reasons that cause a tight muscle; poor posture, new sporting activity, acute injury, but what is really happening to that muscle when it is “tight”? Here we will discuss the mechanism at play in a tight muscle.

The Viscious Cycle

It all starts with an inflammatory response, this does not have to be the big puffy ankle you get after a rolled ankle, it can be as simple as going to the gym for the first time in years. Both will cause an inflammatory response. An inflammatory response involves the release of substance (inflammatory mediators) by the body to begin the process of healing. However, these substances also have other effects, one being nociceptive (pain inducing) activity.

Nociceptive activity is part of the bodies nervous system, specifically that of pain. We all know it hurts to poke something that is inflamed and this is because these inflammatory mediators activate the pain pathways of the nervous system locally and within the spinal cord.

In the spinal cord, nerves meet and send pain signals to the brain, which is a good thing. However, other nerves are also activated – the skeletal muscle nerves. Due to the labyrinth of connections within the spinal cord some signals can get lost and find themselves activating nerves they shouldn’t be. This concept is known as facilitation. When skeletal muscle nerves become facilitated that causes a contraction response in their respective muscle, and the tight muscle is created.

A muscle in an abnormal state of contraction will produce an inflammatory response, creating a cause and effect cycle, leading to a tight muscle remaining long after the original inflammatory response cause has gone.

Breaking the Cycle

Treatment in the forms of Osteopathy, Physiotherapy and Myotherapy aim to break the cycle at two points. Firstly by increasing blood flow to remove the inflammatory mediators causing the response and secondly by creating a separate nervous input to break the facilitation with-in the spinal cord and normalise muscle tension.

Once the muscle tension has normalised, the pain will lessen, and as long as the cause of the muscle tension has also been removed, then the pain will not return.

What is your best way to relieve your tight muscles?

Dr Brendan Verbunt (Osteopath)