• Alex Uding

Why am I so "stiff" and "tight?!"

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Ahhh, stiffness...what an incredibly frustrating and confusing chase. As a physical therapist, I often see a person attain the position below and follow it up with the phrase, "my hamstrings are tight."

Most people, trained or not, can look at the picture and agree that the person likely isn't limited by a tight a muscle. People can move easily and feel stiff and others can be limited in motion and feel just fine. The concept of stiffness and tightness isn't straight forward, so bear with us as we try to navigate the ambiguity around the concept of stiffness and how it relates to your performance.

Let's start by calling "stiffness" a symptom (a reactive feeling) versus a specific pathology/problem.

To better understand this, we will first present different scenarios in which someone may mention they are stiff, perhaps you have run into a few of these scenarios. This will allow us to see how using the words "stiff" or "tight" can mean different things.

  • Muscle soreness post-exertion/ delayed onset muscle soreness - This is a natural response created by body that can occur 24-72 hours after exercise. The muscle soreness/stiffness is caused by inflammation and metabolic stress. This is normal and goes away.

  • Limitations in range of motion - A trauma, surgery, disease state, pathology, or medication can cause limitations in the movement or feeling of being stiff/stuck. This being said, stiffness may not always be associated with limited motion.

  • Hypermobility at a joint - In this scenario, the connective tissues around the joint have increased laxity and ability to move. Consequently, a person's muscles have to work really hard to control the joint. Often times, people lack the control and/or strength to meet the demands of stability, causing the muscles to fatigue and the sensation of tightness occurs.

  • When a muscle isn't relaxed or is excessively turned on. Sometimes we have the tendency to overuse/over-activate muscles in our body. The muscles are being engaged frequently, resulting in reduced ability to "let go" or relax. Therefore, they can feel stiff when they try to move them out of their "on" position.

  • Prolonged postures and positions can make us feel stiff. When we haven't moved in a while, certain muscles can rest in a long, relaxed state, creating feelings of tension from reduced blood flow and increased stretching/lengthening.

Given this information, stiffness does not necessarily represent a singular mechanical or range of motion issue, but rather is a feeling or sensation. Although true limitations in motion can exist due to systemic issues (ie arthritis, dystonia, contracture), for the average healthy person, rarely do the reports of feeling tight have to do with a specific "problem." The wide variety of causes can also be used to help explain why someone can be on a daily stretching routine and feel no difference in their stiffness, despite their dedication to trying to get "loose."

This is great info, but why I am tight?

The brain has a primarily goal: to keep you safe and alive! Therefore, if it perceives a threat, it can generate a response to try and protect you. However, sometimes the brain's perceptions of reality is like the over-protective sibling meeting your significant other for the first time, the brain can perceive a condition as threatening and produces an overactive response.

For example, muscles and nerves like to move. If we are in a posture or position for prolonged periods of time, an ischemic response can start to occur. In less fancy terms, there is a reduced blood supply and oxygen delivery to an area. The brain knows muscles and nerves need blood to thrive, so it sends a signal to tell you to move - this signal can come in the form of stiffness. Think about what happens if you have been sitting for a long time at work, in the car, or at school. For most of us, our first response to get rid of discomfort and stiffness is to move, shake it out, or stretch and then comes the, "ahh much better," feeling. The brain is satisfied because the body has left that position, blood flow is improved, and the sensation of stiffness is reduced.

Other factors such as stress, anxiety, sleep, nutrition, and general health can impact stiffness. These factors may be less likely to be impacted by movement. Instead, stiffness may be occurring because we have become sensitive to the environment or physical state. For example, if I am anxiously driving in the car, upset about traffic, and thinking about all the things I have to do at work, I can be put myself into "high alert." I can start activating muscles without even realizing it, creating a stiffness because tension is being generated. Or I can become sensitive to the stress and my brain starts to become unsure if I need protection or not. It errs on the side of caution and creates a sensitivity to the situation to try and protect me. I then feel this protection as "tightness."

What can I do to reduce stiffness?

1) I like to move it, move it. Let's start by changing inputs to the brain. If there are postures or positions that are eliciting your stiffness - get up, get out, and move from those positions. This is the easy fix. Try changing your alignment, posturing, or activity and see if your symptoms improve. You can use props to help support you (such as pillows or cushions). We aren't meant to live in singular positions, we are meant to move and a have variety of positions through the day. This is why there is not a singular "perfect" posture. Develop control of your movements and positions and you will find the variety that work for you. Learn to balance your postures and alignments so certain muscle groups aren't doing all the work or getting in a "stuck" position.

2) Decrease sensitivity. This is the hard one because sensitization for people is not always straight forward. Try breathing and relaxation techniques to reduce stress, neural drive, and the "protective" state. Use input from foam rollers, massage, and reciprocal inhibition (more to come on these techniques in future articles) to help change the signals and create a different environment for the body. Execute tasks in a composed state, try to reduce anxiety or stress when able, and be aware that tasks don't always need to be attempted with 100% effort.

3) Evaluate your nutrition, hydration, and sleeping habits. Ensure you are recovering and fueling well. It is hard to operate optimally and feel good if we aren't giving the body the care it needs to execute our day.

4) Exercise and Strength Train. Strength training and utilizing different types of muscles contractions can be used to improve mobility and lengthening. Similar to what was mentioned before, this prevents us from getting stuck in positions or states that are starving the muscles of movement or the blood flow it needs. Training our different muscles groups and ranges also helps to create balance between the two sides of a joint and improves stability so we don't become dominant in one area. The key with exercise and strength training is to make sure we recover. Muscle soreness can occur after working out, however, movement and consistency allows the muscles to adapt and recover appropriately. As muscles change through training, movement potential and resiliency to metabolic stress improves.

Stiffness and tightness - it isn't straight forward. There can be a lot of causes as to why it can develop. However, there are also a lot of solutions beyond "stretching." Understanding the cause can help better direct us to management and solution. It can take some work to figure out why your feelings of stiffness or tightness are occurring, but there are plenty of people trained to help you figure it out. Let us know how we can help you.

Empowering Your Movement Journey

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