Have you ever started warming up for a workout or going through a workout and noticed an area felt tighter than the others? For example, your back felt like it was tense and almost "grabbing" and wouldn't let go. Well, have you ever wondered why that happens? Let's start by saying at some point in all of our lives will we feel the perception of "tightness" in an area. Notice how I said PERCEPTION of tightness. That's the major point of this article. Explaining the difference between an actual soft tissue/connective tissue dysfunction (aka muscle or joint capsule) or a neurophysiological reflex (weakness or tissue injury) causing your "tightness". That's where the expertise of being a clinician comes in and it's not as easy as going on Tiktok to find the top 3 stretches for any area.
Let's dive in by first acknowledging that I am using quotations around the word tightness to help emphasize that it is an individual experience and what YOU perceive as tight, may be another's normal. That is important to understand as you tell your clinician you feel tightness in an area, there may not be any actual soft tissue restriction or neurological protective mechanism or lack of movement. When letting your clinician know something is tight, make sure you explain when and for long. For example, during a specific movement or when you're just sitting there. That can provide good insight into what is going on and if it is a response to the nervous system or a connective tissue issue.
The muscles respond to what the brain tells them to do. The brain and nervous system work together to provide inputs back and forth between all aspects of the body, including muscles. When the brain wants to protect an area, it will reflexively tighten the area. Have you ever gotten a cramp while doing an exercise you just started? Well, that's not from electrolytes. That's from the brain trying to tell you "Hey, bozo. This is going to affect the area if you don't stop." The hamstring will spasm when an ACL is sprained in an attempt to protect the joint from being further compromised. The back muscles will spasm when one has discogenic pain. Get the point?
This is caused by muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs that relay information to the brain. Stretching techniques are used to decrease the reflex arc between brain the and the muscles to reduce the tone of the muscle. Essentially, we can trick the brain into not sending the signal to "tighten" the muscle. Building strength, endurance, and control of muscles and joints can also help with reducing muscle tightness by providing a sense of stability to the joint. This is exactly why place such a strong emphasis on physical rehabilitation, mobility, and stability. MOVEMENT can help reduce the perception of tightness more than anything else. You don't need to smash and bash everything to create a response.
For actual soft tissue/connective tissue tightness, the best way to describe it is a bodybuilder or powerlifter. Athletes that are so dense and have so much muscle mass that the connective tissue and soft tissues are actually shortened. Have you ever seen a big bodybuilder (that's not a pro, because those athletes are quite mobile) that can't straighten out their arms because their biceps are so big? Or a powerlifter who can't scratch their own back because of how much muscle mass they have? THAT is soft tissue/connective tissue tightness. The tissues shortened to adapt to the demands and stressors applied to them. This is when stretching and mobility techniques is more important than stability as the tissue needs more extensibility.
So, how can you differentiate neuromuscular versus connective tissue involvement in a "tight" area? That's easy.
The diagnostic test of whether the muscle's length deficit is caused primarily by neuromuscular factors is if it lengthens spontaneously after relaxation techniques such as PIR (post-isometric relaxation) or PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation). If the muscle does NOT lengthen following PIR, then it is likely that the muscle's length is reduced because of connective tissue factors.
Here's what you do:
- Take the area of concern to right before the end range aka almost as far as it can go
- Lightly provide resistance into something such as a partner or band
- Hold for about 10s
- Relax and then try and take the area through a greater range of motion
- If it goes further, it's neuromuscular tightness and you need to become more stable
- if it doesn't go further, you need to incorporate more PNF or static stretching into your daily routine
This seems like a lot in words, but it's actually quite simple. If you're interested in learning more or curious as to why something also feels tight and limiting your performance or causing pain, schedule your initial evaluation with us at strengthchiro.com
If we don't feel we can help, we will absolutely send you to the best people for you!
Dr. Cameron Gholampour DC, MS, CCSP
International Certified Sports Chiropractor
Strength & Spine Chiropractic