Saturday, May 21, 2011

"It's tight" - what does that mean anyway and what can we do about it?

Have you ever worked out with someone - or said this yourself perhaps - "ya my hamstrings are tight" or my ITB is tight or my achilles is tight or god knows what but it's tight? Then a whole lot of warm up or stretching or foam rolling ensues?  And for awhile the "it's tight" lets go a bit, but only to return before the next workout? Recognize any of this? Ok so what's that about? What does it mean when we say something is tight?

As has often been said before here at b2d, we're complex systems, so there isn't a single all powerful answer to this question of "what's tightness anyway" - but there may be an approach shot. So let's try to unpack the tightness concept a wee bit.

Tightness - this is usually experienced as  a muscle that feels tight to touch. Intriguingly, we generally experience tightness not in the muscle per se, but around how that muscle acts on/crosses a joint: we note that our range of motion is compromised: the lunge is not getting deep, the heels are up for a squat, we can't touch our toes or fully flex our shoulder with a locked elbow. Whatever "it's tight"

Muscle tightness is not a bad thing. That contraction of muscle fibers lets us lift stuff up or put stuff down. And that's what that's called: contraction. Voluntarily shortening the muscle fibers.

Involuntary Contractions: There are two types of involuntary contractions that we don't generally enjoy. One is a spasm or cramp (what we've discussed over here about muscle cramps when running, and how that's not about electrolyte balance but strength). The other type is contracture - that's the involuntary contraction of a muscle too.

pvc laced foam roller:
not quite as sensitive as
human touch?

EMG. The technical difference between spasm and contracture is electrical activity in the muscle. In spasms, its elevated. And it's more intense. You've heard perhaps about electrical impulses  - shock - stimulating intense muscle contraction such that it can break a limb? In contracture, there isn't this continual EMG elevation across the muscle - but there can be a bit of increased EMG at what are often refered to as trigger points.  To be brief a contracture may occur at one spot (or several) in a muscle, where that part of the muscle just can't seem to un-contract.

Contracture - So contracture - the involuntary contraction of some fibers (not all) within a muscle is pretty much what we talk about as "tight" - perceived tightness in a muscle; restriction in range of motion across a joint.

Knotty Problem? The approach to this sensitive bundle of neurons that is contracting and holding a whole lot of a little section of muscle fiber is  often to apply a roll of hard foam rubber. Why? supposedly to force the knot to cry uncle and "let go."

Hitting one into unconsciousness with a stick;
foam rolling:
do you see a difference?
Now i suppose if i was tense and freaked and someone hit me with a brick bat, i'd suddenly relax too, but, i gotta aks, is that approach optimal? I mean is that the best way to help a person to relax? Or is it just radically dealing with the symptoms rather than any part of a cause?

So why the contracture? Maybe if we get at some of that, we'll have some other options to help reduce or release the contracture.

Direction of Contracture: Protect the Squishy Bits
The interesting effect of contraction here is that it seems most of the time to reduce our range of motion which reduces our perfromance, which actually reduces our risk. If we can't bend as deeply, we can't pick something up as heavy as otherwise. If we can't flex our ankles well, it's hard to go as fast to drive the sprint;  if we can't lift our sturnum, and extend our thoracic spine, it's harder to press a big weight over head. More contracture means less wieght, less load, less speed, less risk to us.

Startle reflex in action. And perhaps beer, too.
Startle. This kind of performance reducing contracture is pretty similar to a reflexive response known as startle (see above). In adults, when we see/hear something that is sudden and perceived as a threat, we involuntarily move to protect our squishy bits. Threat response.

If we understand contracture as a threat response - a bit more lasting than typical startle - that suggests that there may be SOMETHING happening in our environment that our nervous system (the nerves control the muscles) perceives as Not Right with the World.

So perhaps the knott or tightness or reduced range of motion is only a symptom, so attacking the symptom is like throwing oil into the engine all the time rather than finding and fixing the leak. Both solutions work, but one is less optimal and more costly than the other.

Finding the Leak
The tricky part about a threat response - a muscle contraction to keep us under performing in the presence of threat for our own protection - is that it may not be a muscular issue. It may not be that we haven't stretched enough, aren't warmed up enough. It may be that we have the wrong glasses, or are not getting enough sleep, or have a balance issue.  It may be that our feet - which have a whopping 24% of the joints in our bodies - are not moving very well so out bod feels less stable than it ought.

Movement. So finding the oil leak, finding what may be causing the contracture, may be a rich process of analysis and assessment, something that a movement specialist can help to check visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems.  In the meantime, what can help usually and immediately is a bit of movement.

Ah, you say, but with contracture one's movement is restricted, yes? Yes, exactly. But, one can pick a joint and focus very deliberately on making quality movements at that joint: the ankle, a finger, the neck, a knee. Go ahead, give it a go. If you feel you have something that's "tight" try moving a not tight joint through range of motion that is as perfect and lovely as possible, and then try the movement again. Any difference?

Why does a movement work? The nervous system is about the whole body, not about a joint. It seems that feeling quality movement anywhere helps soothe the threat response for the whole system. Safer system means less need for contracture to protect system. We've seen this before in the example of the arthrokinetic reflex. Something that effects one part of the system is experienced on some level in the rest of the system; something that improves performance at one part of the system helps the rest of the system. Isn't that wild?

And yet it makes sense: everything is just signals turning on and off in the brain. Everything looks the same in the brain, so something that makes part of the body happy, it tells the brain and may just feed back to tell the rest of the body we're doing fine-r? Why not?

Alternative to the foam roller? Towards cause and away from Symptom.
So that foam roller may seem like a fast (and cheap) solution to a problem, but is it a last(ing) solution? Why not give our brains a chance to work with the rest of us? a great way to do that is with movement to get to nerves to get to the brain to get back to the body.

If you'd like to learn more about movement to help with that nasty contracture problem, there are at least three options:

Bottom Line:
Those contractures are speaking to us. They're trying to tell us something about how we're doing. We can try to silence them by knocking them out till they pass out and give out (ie, squish them into shock release with a tennis ball), or we might try to find a way to improve our performance so that the contractures don't need to warn us we're in threat.

Related Posts
Related Text: Clinical Applications of Neuromuscular Techniques, Vol 1, 2nd Ed.


    Steven Rice Fitness said...

    Excellent! I frequently am trying to educate people that muscle is not inert, but is controlled by the CNS, and trying to stretch or manipulate as if it is so much dead meat has little or even negative effect.

    robertc said...

    There's a related comment on how we respond to threats:


    Related Posts with Thumbnails