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Why Muscles Get Tight and What to Do About it

Posted Jan 03 2010 5:07pm

"Let's say someone has hip osteoarthritis or chondropathia patellae or facet joint arthrosis? You say movement can strengthen joints (better synovial fluid, better nutrition etc). But what if some poor athlete tries to move and finds that hip abduction is reduced or all leg muscles are extremely tense and put a lot of stress on the knee joints? He can do squats without any pain but the knee joints are in danger to be crushed from extreme bound muscles. Looks like a vicious cycle..... Can you fool your nervous system like you do in pnf stretching? Would this be dangerous because you could make things worse (protection reflexes are there for a reason I think...). Or is your brain sometimes like an overprotective mother and does more than necessary in prohibiting movement of your limbs?"


That's a good question and something that people with joint disease (osteoarthritis) struggle with.

When a joint is overloaded, tissues often become inflamed (synovium, bone, ligaments, tendons) and in response to the inflammation, the muscles surrounding the joint tend to tighten or increase their resting tone. If you, for example, tear your anterior cruciate ligament in the knee and someone tries to test your knee for stability, within a matter of minutes the test will be negative because the hamstrings have tightened enough to restrict the movement of the joint. The gastrocsoleus muscles in the lower leg will often be tight in response to Achilles tendonosis or plantarfasciitis. The rotator cuff of the shoulder will tighten in response to cervical spine joint or disc disease.

The neuromuscular system is dynamic. Receptors in the joint tissues and the fascia feedback information to the central nervous system which in turn up or down regulates muscle tone. So, sometimes even after the initial injury and inflammation have passed, the muscle tension will remain high and as a result, flexibility is impaired. Inadequate flexibility in and around the joints can create asymmetrical loads which then jump starts the cycle all over again.

So, yes, making your joints healthier is one part of the solution. Another is to strive for biomechanical balance. Try to achieve acceptable flexibility and movement in the joints above and below the injured joint. So, for example, hip motion (especially rotation and extension) and ankle dorsiflexion are two movements that seem to be restricted in people with knee osteoarthritis. Whether one causes the other - we don't know. But, improving the movement in those areas improves what I call "load sharing" - distributing the force across other joints and reducing the magnitude of force into the involved joint which can only help the weaker joint or joints.

How to achieve biomechanical balance is a bigger subject than what I can reasonably cover in a blog but a good book on the subject is Shirley Sahrmann's "Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes". 

One other thought, static and dynamic postures along with daily activities have a big influence on joint health and movement. Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique both cover these topics and might be worth looking into to help reduce muscle tension and improve flexibility and movement.

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