Now and then, we experience various forms of body aches and pains. Perhaps, we went to the gym and gave our bodies a really good workout! What usually follows after is a period of soreness that typically goes away within a couple days. In some cases though, we might not have done very much physically and yet, we may feel this tightness and pain. You know that stiff, painful neck and shoulders you get sometimes? Yeah, that experience.
Why does that happen though? Shouldn’t our bodies NOT become stiff and tight? Things might not seem to match up here, but it actually does. Let’s first dive into how muscles even work.
How Do Muscles Work
Muscle fibers are like elastic bands. I like to imagine a bundle of rubber bands stretched out. Naturally in this stretched state, they have this force of energy to want to pull and glide past each other into the bundled up state. Muscles work similarly. When muscle fibers pull closer together, that’s what allows for a muscle contraction to occur. This is where the muscle starts to look bigger since it is being flexed.
For example, we should be fairly familiar with the bicep muscle. It is that muscle that connects our arm bone to the forearm bones. When we want to pick up our arm, the muscle attached to those 2 bones will contract. This allows for the arm to bend (flex) to perform whatever activity we had planned (picking up an object, touching face, eat, etc.)
Now, muscles do not necessarily have a “pushing” type of force. So does that mean that bicep would stay contracted forever and our arm to exist in that bent state? Not necessarily. The bicep muscle will relax and the arm will gradually return to the original relaxed position. But what if after bending the arm, you now want to reach for or catch something quickly? The bicep muscle will not be able to help with that quickly enough.
Fortunately for every muscle group, there is an opposite, antagonistic set of muscles. To allow for our arms to perform the extending type of motions, we have another muscle called the tricep muscle. The tricep is located behind our arm bones and will also contract to allow for that extension movement.
This is essentially how muscles work: they work by being attached to bones and pulling which allows our bones to move. What is amazing is that there are these sets of muscles all throughout our body! This is how we are able to move in such sophisticated ways! (Click here to read about how to build muscle)
How Muscle Fibers Work
One thing to keep in mind is that although one muscle group seems like just “one muscle”, it is not necessarily just one muscle. In fact, each muscle is composed of MANY fibers. Going back to the rubber band example, if it was just one, it, alone, would not have much strength. Now, if there was a bunch of them, that strength would be quite significant.
Some muscles like the eye muscles can have as little as 5 muscle fibers per type of muscle whereas some muscles can have well over 1,000! Of course, this can get quite complex with motor units, action potentials, and all that gibberish. But in short, the more fibers there are, the stronger the muscle contraction is.
Optimally, each set of muscle fibers would contract and glide past each other smoothly. When a contraction is no longer needed, the fibers would relax and allow the muscle to slide back to their original position. However, we go through so many experiences throughout the day that may affect how these muscle fibers function on a daily basis.
What Causes Muscle Stiffness and Tightness
Imagine that as a set of muscle fibers to ONE muscle group are gliding past each other, they somehow are unable to let each other go efficiently (due to undesirable conditions). If it was just one small set (of let’s say the 1000 fibers), you might not feel anything since there are so many of them. But if it was a more significant amount of them, let’s say 50% of them, you will definitely feel it.
After sitting for such a long time in front of the computer especially during this time of COVID-19, your neck and shoulder muscles might be contracted the entire time. Since it has gone through undesirable conditions, it is unable to relax as it normally would and some of those muscle fibers aren’t able to glide back smoothly. Some of those fibers might even be stuck.
Before you had the tightness, you might have been able to move with 100% flexibility and this was when the muscle fibers were gliding smoothly during the contraction. Now that it is in a stuck state, your flexibility is now reduced. Trying to move AS IF you were still 100% flexible, will equate to pain.
You might have even experienced this while jogging or running. Sometimes a more significant amount of the fibers of the calf muscle have gotten stuck and are unable to let go. This phenomenon is known as the muscle cramp!
These experiences can be frustrating and even painful! What are ways in which one can prevent muscle stiffness and potentially cramps?
9 Things You Can Do to Relieve and Prevent Muscle Stiffness
Muscle stiffness can happen to the best of us and when we least expect it. Here are 9 methods you can try to relieve yourself of muscle stiffness.
I like to imagine a balloon. It is made of an elastic material but when fresh out of the bag, it can be difficult to blow it up. This is because it is stiff and tight. So what do you do? You first stretch it out. When you blow it up after that session of stretching, it becomes much easier to inflate.
This is the same with our muscles. Stretching will allow for them to be more elastic and more flexible throughout the day. Your movements will feel more free flowing and less restricted. If you are working at your desk for very long hours, be sure to do some stretches periodically.
2. Drink More Water
Water is an essential substance. It helps lubricate our muscles so that the fibers can glide easier during contraction. Without that slippery factor, muscle fibers may get a little sticky and become stuck. If it is just a few fibers, it might not be a problem but if it is a lot of them, then it means a cramp has probably already occurred.
Water is a substance that also has high specific heat capacity. That just means it has the strong capacity to help prevent other things from changing their temperature too quickly (like with freezing or overheating). A quick and significant change in temperature can be damaging to certain things. Water will absorb any excessive amount of heat generated almost like a shield and also prevent massive heat loss like an insulator.
That’s why on the days you have fever, it is recommended to drink more fluids, it prevents that drastic change in temperature from 98 F to like 102 F, and that can be uncomfortable. Fever causes you to lose more water through sweating and urinating in an attempt to get rid of the foreign species infecting you.
When sitting at the computer for too long, our neck and shoulder muscles will be contracted for a long period. This will result in more water loss and muscles fibers that can get stuck. Therefore, like with fever, it would be good to stay hydrated.
3. Engage in More Exercise
Almost like the stretching concept, your muscles will be more elastic and have more range of motion. In addition to that, by taking part in more exercise, your body will start to release various chemicals and hormones like adrenaline and endorphins. These chemicals are basically like your body’s natural form of pain killers.
When you exercise, you are essentially inducing pain to your body. As a result, a self defense mechanism would be to negate the pain so you can survive whatever “danger” is being done to the body (in this case, the exercise). Your body won’t be able to tell the difference between exercising and running from a large animal chasing you. Therefore, in both scenarios, your body will produce those pain negating substances.
When you do not exercise, the body does not feel that it is in danger. It does not anticipate the possibility of feeling pain and so there would be no need to produce those natural chemicals to negate pain. Thus, whatever pain you have (even if small), you will feel the full effect of it.
4. Keep Your Body Warm
Have you ever noticed right after you wake up, that is when you feel the most pain? As you go about your day, the pain gradually disappears or is minimized? That is because in the morning, your body temperature and even the environment is cooler. You most likely did not move very much in the past 6 to 8 hours. This is why those who have knee pain tend to feel it most in the mornings. (Click here to read about knee pain and supplements)
As you finally start to move about, you start to generate heat which warms up your body. During colder seasons, it would be good to dress a bit warmer or be near an external heat source.
Probably by far one of the best things one can do to relieve their muscle tightness is massage. Let’s go back to the concept of when muscle fibers glide past each other during contraction and get stuck. How do we get them to unhook and return to their original position? We apply some form of pressure like massaging!
Tip When Massaging
It is common to think that wherever the pain is, that’s where we massage right? One is not wrong to think that, but massaging ONLY that spot can only get so far to reduce the pain. If you refer to the diagram below, you will see the different whole muscles.
Image from HealthPages.org
As an example, most people tend to have tightness and pain in their upper shoulders. Let’s just say someone has some upper back pain about the size of a quarter on the right side of back. Now when you look at the chart, the upper back muscle is called the trapezius muscle. The trapezius muscle is definitely MUCH bigger than the size of a quarter.
If one were to massage just that spot, what may happen next? They might say that spot feels better, but now that pain has traveled somewhere else on the upper back. Interesting right? Why does that happen?
Why Did the Pain Travel?
Well, when muscles ache, it is never just that one spot. In fact, it is that entire muscle group just as can be seen in the diagram above.
The trapezius muscle is actually quite large and extends to the neck, shoulders, and even middle of back. When there is a tender spot on the muscle, it is signifying that the WHOLE muscle is aching and tight. It just so happens that one spot is taking more of the toll and became really tight with time. When the pain in that area is taken care of, the tightness in other areas of that SAME muscle will start to become more noticeable.
Going back to the rubber band example. If you stretch only a small section of the rubber band rather than the whole band, eventually that one spot would become quite fragile. Now when you finally decide to stretch the whole band, that one section you were stretching has gotten very weak. If you continue to stretch, it would eventually continue to be stressed to the point of snapping. Our muscles work similarly, and that tender spot happens to be the spot that has been taking the most toll. It does not mean that only that spot is hurting but actually the whole muscle is hurting.
Therefore, in short, it would be good to massage that whole muscle instead of just the painful spot.
Tool to Help with Massaging
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Typically, you can massage with your hand but if you are not used to it, the fingers and hand may start cramping up and needing massages themselves. You can also visit a massage therapist. If you are someone who has a high tendency to get muscle tightness, I recommend you to invest in something like the Theragun.
The Theragun is a tool that will imitate a percussive instrument that helps beat up and massage your muscles. In the process, it will help loosen some of the fibers that have been stuck and help them to unhook. As the muscle fibers unhook, they will return to the relaxed position which means the pain will be reduced.
The Theragun also has different head attachments to help fit your muscle pain needs. Sometimes there is a muscle that aches and is located quite deep, underneath other muscles. This is where you will need a deep tissue massage and you might want to use the more pointy head accessory to attach to the Theragun. For superficial muscle pain, you can use the larger, flatter head attachments.
Again, you want to massage the whole muscle and not just the one painful spot for best results (See the muscle group chart above to see what the muscle may be and its shape).
6. Consume More Foods With Potassium
When you are constantly using your muscle, they will become overworked and it will become harder for them to relax. That’s why for those who workout, rest days are essential. When you consume foods that are higher in Potassium, it helps with the relaxation process. As a result, your muscles will become less stiff and less likely to cramp up.
Foods that are high in potassium include:
- Sweet potatoes or Potatoes
7. Reduce Stress Levels
Stress is a huge factor when it comes to muscle stiffness. You start to stay in that contracted state longer and you continue to release the stress hormone, Cortisol. Temporarily, this hormone is good such as when you are being chased by a large animal.
However, when you are just at work doing your tasks, it will not be advantageous for you to have that hormone running throughout your system. There is no immediate danger, unless you have an abusive boss or the likelihood of injury is high.
In fact, the longer that cortisol is circulating in your body, the more of a toll it takes on you and it can potentially lead to many chronic illnesses. Find some time to take breaks and do some things you enjoy.
8. Get More Sleep
Sleep will help rejuvenate your body and allow for the muscles to repair themselves. This will reduce the likelihood of muscle tightness and pain. (Click here to read about how to improve your sleep).
Make sure you also do not sleep in bad positions where your neck is dangling or your arm is overstretched. That is a red flag for pain and stiffness in the next morning when you wake up. If you notice your body sinking into your bed, you will definitely have some back pain.
9. Consume More Protein
Protein is the nutrient found in certain foods that is involved with building and repairing of muscles that have been damaged or overused. You can find protein in foods like:
- Protein powder
By putting in the time and effort to follow these strategies, you can significantly reduce your muscle tightness and potentially avoid a cramp. You will definitely feel more pain free and better overall.
Summary of All 9 Methods
Here are the 9 methods again.
- Drink more water
- Engage in more exercise
- Keep your body warm
- Massage (i.e. Theragun)
- Consume more foods with potassium
- Reduce stress levels
- Get more sleep
- Consume more protein
Muscle stiffness and even cramps can be really frustrating and painful experiences. Although sometimes out of our control, our daily habits may sometimes contribute to the pain and tightness. Fortunately, there are many methods that one can utilize to minimize muscle stiffness. There are even tools like the Theragun that can help with reducing that stiffness.
I am no physician, but have learned a lot from one. If you ever have pain that is quite significant especially after an injury, I highly recommend seeing an osteopathic doctor or chiropractor. Hope you were able to learn more about how muscles work and how to reduce stiffness to be more pain free!
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