Why do you feel tight or stiff?

This is such a commonly asked question and rightly so. Most people are aware of some sensation or feeling of tightness in their body and they’ll often seek to know and understand the reason why they are tight. Tightness can be due to a number of reasons, the first of which is muscular. Muscular tightness can shorten the muscle and prevent you from reaching the end of range of a certain movement. The aim here would be to identify the muscles that were short and tight and provide appropriate treatment and advice to improve the extensibility of them over a period of time. In these cases the osteopath needs to ensure that the tightness is not due to joint restrictions elsewhere, for example, a stiff and flexed thoracic spine will prevent full shoulder flexion due to the scapular not being able to fully rotate over the thorax.

Is range of movement restricted due to a bony problem. Bone spurs can develop and form excessive bone, for example at the elbow and hips and cause symptoms related to FAI etc. Conversely, these symptoms can develop in cases where there is too little bone from previous surgery which creates instability at the joint and as a result the muscles around that tighten to create that stability.

Every joint has a capsule that surrounds it that helps to permit movement at that joint. Factors such as previous injury and surgery can cause tightness and shortening of the joint capsule.

Your body can create something called protective tension. This is where the body will tighten up certain area to create some stability so the body doesn’t slip into an unstable position where the risk of injury is greater. In these cases often the best approach is corrective exercises so the patient learns to use that muscle group effectively and retrain the body and nervous system.

Another reason for tension is neural tension. This is commonly seen in people who have had disc problems in their lower back and experience pain when bending forward. This can be from putting tension on the nerves in the lower back rather than muscular tension from the hamstrings.

Previous injury to an area can cause tightness. With injuries you can generate soft tissue restrictions due to rehabilitation mistakes during the remodelling process. Corrective exercises are really useful in this instance again.

Protective spasm can cause a temporary shortness in ranges of movement. This occurs due to the body wanting to protect you from getting into a position that could potentially cause further damage by getting into ranges of movement that aren’t safe.

Sometimes we don’t have stability at a certain joint so as a result the adjacent joints and muscles will compensate and create tension and tightness. An example of this is when someone who has an anterior pelvic tilt and associated hamstring tightness.

About the author

Michael is an osteopath, trainee strength coach and competitive powerlifter.

muscular tightness