Why do muscles feel tight? Does that mean they are short? That they can't relax? And what can you do about it?
Tightness is a Feeling, Not Just a Mechanical Condition
If you say you feel “tight” in a particular area, that might mean several different things:
Maybe you have poor range of motion
Maby range of motion is ok but uncomfortable and takes excess effort
Maby movement is ok but the area doesn't feel relaxed.
Or maybe the area feels basically relaxed, but has some vague sense of discomfort - a feeling that is unpleasant but too mild to be called pain.
This ambiguity means that the feeling of tightness is just that - a feeling - which is not the same thing as the physical or mechanical property of excess tension, or stiffness, or shortness. You can have one without the other.
Many clients can say that their hamstrings feel tight, but they can easily put their palms to the floor in a forward bend. Some clients whose hamstrings don't feel tight at all can barely get their hands past their knees. So the feeling of tightness is not an accurate measurement of range of motion.
This feeling of tightness is not an accurate reflection of the actual tension or hardness of a muscle, or the existence of "knots."
The feeling of tightness does not necessarily mean that the muscle is tight.
Why do muscles feel tight if they are not actually tight?
So why would a muscle feel tight even if it physically loose?
I think we can use pain as an analogy. Pain can exist even in the absence of tissue damage, because pain results from perception of threat, and perception does not always match reality. Pain is essentially an alarm, and alarms sometimes go off even when there is no real danger.
Perhaps a similar logic is involved in the feeling of tightness. The feeling happens when we unconsciously perceive (rightly or wrongly) that there is a threatening condition in the muscles that needs a movement correction.
So what is the threatening condition that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about? Surely it is not just the presence of tension - muscles are made to create tension and we often feel tightness in muscles even when they are almost completely relaxed.
So tension is not a threat, but the absence of adequate rest or blood flow is a threat, which could cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors. So the problem that a feeling of tightness is trying to warn us about is not the existence of tension, but the frequency of tension or the lack of blood flow (especially to nerves, which are very blood thirsty.)
With this in mind, I think of the feeling of tightness as a variety of pain, perhaps a pain too mild to deserve being called pain. But it is definitely bothersome. And it has a certain flavor or character that motivates an interest in changing resting posture, or moving around or stretching. Which is different from certain pains, which often make you want to keep still. Maybe we could say that pain is warning us to not move a certain area, while tightness is warning us to get moving.
How Can You Cure Muscle Tightness?
I think we can probably treat the feeling of tightness in the same way we treat pain - by changing one of the many "inputs" that cause the nervous system to perceive threat in the body, such as nociception, thoughts, emotions, memories, etc.
Some pains are very obviously related to movement or postural habits. We can know this if someone says something like: "It hurts when I do this, and it hurts even more when I do more of this, and it hurts less when I do less of this." In this case, changing movement or posture is likely to help because it will reduce the main driver of the pain – mechanical nociception caused by movement.
On the other hand, there are many other cases of pain, particularly chronic pain, that are more complex – the pain doesn't correlate very much with certain movements or postures, but instead with other variables like time of day, sleep duration, emotional state, stress level, diet, general exercise, or some random unknown factors. In this event, it is unlikely that mechanical nociception caused by movement is the main driver of the pain, and more likely that peripheral or central sensitization are playing more of a role.
In most simple cases of feeling tight, the cause is obvious – we have been stuck in the same posture or movement pattern for too long, and our muscles need a rest or change of position to reduce the ischemia or metabolic stress that is causing nociception in certain areas. For example, if we spend hours in a car, or an airplane, or behind a computer, we will instinctively feel compelled to stretch and move, and this will usually alleviate any feelings of stiffness.
the feeling of tightness is a mild form of pain
We instinctively stretch muscles that have remained in a short position for a while, and this usually makes us feel immediately better.
But, as noted above, most people who suffer from chronic tightness have already tried and failed at this strategy, which suggests the issue is less about bad mechanics and more about increased sensitivity.
Soft Tissue work for Tightness
There are various soft tissue treatments (deep tissue massage, foam rolling,) intended to lengthen short tissues, break adhesions, or melt fascia, etc.
Soft Tissue work for Tightness
There are various soft tissue treatments (deep tissue massage, foam rolling, Graston, ART, IASTM) intended to lengthen short tissues, break adhesions, or melt fascia, etc. This is very likely impossible, as I and many others have pointed out.
But could these treatments decrease sensitivity and make someone feel less tight? For sure, by activating descending inhibition of nociception, which is a well-known effect of painful stimulation that is expected to bring health benefits.
But of course these treatments also create nociception, which tends to increase sensitivity. It's a fine balance that depends on the individual and many other variables. Again, if it feels good do it, but it's an option not a necessity, it's only temporary, and you should keep in mind the reason for doing it.