This topic has been coming up a lot with my patients recently. Many patients report that they don’t feel pain exactly - they feel tight, or, more usually, really tight. This can apply to the neck, low back, and extremities. Determining the reason a patient feels tight (the diagnosis) and helping fix it is, of course, my job.
True muscle tightness certainly exists. What do I mean by “true muscle tightness?” I mean that the reason you feel tight in a muscle, say the hamstring muscle, is because the hamstring muscle is actually tight. This is most typically a result of an increased or altered load on a muscle – like a workout - and sets in 1-2 days after the change in demand. This tightness may be called soreness, and is a result of normal breakdown in the muscle itself and/or inflammation in the muscle. While people might choose to intervene to reduce this tightness (such as going for a walk, stretching, getting a massage, etc.), it is imperative to note that this tightness is normal, and will pass within a few days on its own. People don’t usually seek medical care for this.
True muscle tightness can come from less strenuous events too. For example, if you wear a new pair of shoes while walking around a city for hours, you might experience tightness in a muscle or two the next day since your muscles experienced a new load due to the different position of your feet. Alternatively, if you were in a cast for 8 weeks, your muscles may also feel tight while they are immobilized. And, of course, if you tear a muscle, if will feel tight as inflammation and then immature scar tissue replaces the torn muscle tissue. In all of these scenarios, the cause of the tightness is normal, obvious, and reversible.
Again, patients usually don’t come to me reporting tightness of the normal variety (since normal muscle tightness will pass on its own). So what makes patients feel tight if it’s not normal true muscle tightness? There are two possibilities:
1. The abnormal sensation of tightness is referred from a joint, either nearby or distant.
A common situation here is a spine joint being out of place and referring a feeling of tightness to a separate area. It can be nearby, like the neck joints sending tightness signals to the upper shoulders. Or it can be more distant, like the low back joints sending tightness signals to the calf. Extremity joints can also send tightness signals. With extremity joints, the signal usually stays close to the problematic joint. The hip joint may send a feeling of tightness down the thigh a bit, for instance. This tightness can be constant or it can come and go.
2. The abnormal sensation of tightness is nerve tension/tightness.
Nerves run throughout our body, passing through and next to muscles. If a nerve is compressed somewhere along its path, it will lose the ability to lengthen, making it indeed tight. The most frequent example of this is the sciatic nerve. When compressed in the low back, it can create a feeling of tightness in the back of the thigh, calf, or foot. Most people, however, just blame the muscle in the area of tightness, not understanding that a nerve is also in that area! This tightness, also, can be constant or it can come and go.
There are movements and simple tests I use in the clinic to determine what is causing the tightness. A simple slump test is used to help differentiate if a hamstring muscle or a sciatic nerve is tight, for instance. The take home message is this: true muscle tightness is usually normal, but persistent or recurring (chronic) tightness is not normal, and is almost always arising from a location away from the site where the tightness is felt. You shouldn’t be stretching, foam rolling, or massaging your arm, back, or leg muscles all the time. Find the joint or nerve causing the feeling of tightness and fix that to get relief for good. -- Laura
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