Tight Muscles & Stiff Joints

Posted in Spinal Hygiene at 2:13 PM by Dr. Greathouse

Science of  Flexibility (Alter) 1988

In patient care I’m often asked, “what’s causing the problem”? Back and neck problems are rarely the result of a single factor but rather multiple factors over time. Below is an explanation of how problems might develop.

What Makes Muscles Tight?

Science of  Flexibility (Alter) 1988 (page 5 — 6)

Prolonged muscular tension result in several negative effects.

  • Excessive muscular tension tends to decrease sensory awareness.
  • It also wastes energy; a contracting muscle requires more energy than a relaxed muscle, thus fatigues quicker with normal use.
  • Habitually tense muscles cut off  circulation, reducing blood supply resulting in lack of oxygen, essential nutrients and causes toxic waste products to accumulate in the cells. A source of discomfort and fatigue.
  • This process predisposes one to fatigue, aches, even pain.
  • When a muscle stays partially contracted, an abnormal state of shortening called contracture develops.  Contracture and chronic muscle tension not only shorten the muscle, but also make the muscle less supple, weaker, and unable to take the shock and stress of various types of movement.

Common activities of daily living that contribute to this process are; prolonged sitting, standing and poor sleep or recumbent positions.

Muscle contraction limits joint mobility.

Effects of Immobilization on Connective Tissue

Science of  Flexibility (Alter) 1988 (Page 54 – 55)

When joints are immobilized for a length of time, the connective tissue elements of the capsules, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and fascia lose their extensibility / flexibility.  Connective tissues will come in contact with each other and eventually stick, thereby encouraging the formation of abnormal cross-linking (adhesions). The joints become stiffer.


Based on the above simple concepts you might better understand some of the mechanisms involved with back and neck pain. Tight muscles and stiff joints produce aches and pains as well as predisposing one to injury with increased use or even normal use in many instances.

You should not only understand these effects, but also where tension comes from, and some of the additional implications of muscle contracture.  Muscle contracture is not “muscle spasm”, and is called by other similar names such as muscle over-activity, muscle hypertonicity or hypertonic muscles, trigger points etc.

Muscles become tense for many reasons, probably the most common reasons are poor posture and emotional stress.  Sitting, standing and even lying with poor posture places tension or load on muscles.  When a muscle is loaded, it naturally resists the load by contracting just enough to overcome the demand.  Over time, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the effects of tension (load), as described above, come into play.  Eventually, the contracture or overactive response becomes learned behavior and the muscle stays contracted, even when the load is removed.

Muscles are our movement organs and therefore effect joints.  Without joints and muscles there’s no movement.  The joints & muscles communicate neurologically.  A tight muscle adversely affects joint mobility by restricting movement and causing off axis movement.

The partially immobilized joint and surrounding connective tissues adapt to this hypomobile state.

As indicated above, immobilized tissues lose extensibility.  The dense connective tissues ligaments, joint capsules etc. shorten.  This creates adaptive joint stiffness or what is commonly called articular (joint) dysfunction. Articular dysfunction not only harms the joint but also adversely affects the muscle as well.

Ironically, the neurologic sensors in the joints called mechanoreceptors can reflexively react to the stiffness and aberrant movement by signaling the muscles to respond or contract, thus further perpetuating the problem.

As you can imagine, in this state, the joints and muscles are very susceptible to injury.  Back and neck problems are very common and this process is probably a major contributing factor.  By the time you seek care for a problem, in many instances, this process has probably already established itself.  Many, if not most, patients experience strains and sprains of the back or neck because of pre-existing tight muscles and joints.  Just the right movement, twist or even prolonged positioning places a demand tissues that  have lower tolerance levels, thus injury or damage occurs.

The second component to this issue is the additional poor adaptation to injury with post trauma muscle spasm and scar tissue formation.

Manage the problem with joint mobilization, massage and exercise.

Prevent recurrent problems with good posture, frequent breaks, stress management and exercise.

Dr. James E. Greathouse Jr.

Chiropractic Physician

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