Why do muscles ache and feel stiff?

Feeling tight and stiff or having aching muscle pains are very common symptoms of day to day life, but what are the causes, and how do you deal with them? Unsurprisingly, the cause is often not one single factor. However, the frequently blamed ‘muscle knots’ (firm lumps within the muscle), and ‘muscle tightness’ i.e. muscles not being as stretchy as they should, have actually been shown to be unlikely reasons for common muscle aches and pains . This new understanding has led to improved methods for treating muscle pain, rather than simply stretching and massaging the painful area. It has been suggested that the role of the nervous system, psychological factors (such as an increased stress response), and even ischemia (a lack of blood flow) are all possible explanations for the feeling of tight or aching muscle pains. Below is a brief overview of the ideas behind each of these:

Nervous system:

Your brain decides when something needs to be painful, but the threshold at which it decides this can change. For example, being stuck in a position at work that you find painful can cause the central nervous system to become sensitised to that posture. This means that in the future, whenever you adopt that position, even for a short period of time, it could become painful as your nervous system remembers that it was painful last time and uses pain as a warning to prevent you staying in the same position again. In this kind of situation, pain is occurring without any actual tissue damage and is due to your previous experiences and your brain’s memory of them.

Psychological factors:

Feeling tension in the body or feeling ‘tight’ during periods of increased stress is a well known phenomenon. The ideas behind this are complex and too long winded for a full explanation here, but may have something to do with increased production of stress hormones such as cortisol. When the body is stressed, the adrenal glands produce stress hormones that can perpetuate a pain response. For example, studies have shown that the more stressed you are about a dental procedure, the more painful it will be.

Lack of blood flow (ischemia):

Muscle pain and increased sensitivity of muscles and their corresponding nerves has been connected to a reduced blood flow. Simply put, a lack of blood flow and therefore oxygen to a muscle group can cause an increase in inflammatory chemicals, which cause pain. This is most often seen in deeper muscles, which are more easily affected by a lack of activity and movement.

What can I do about It?

So, the questions still remains: how best to deal with the feeling of aching, stiff or tight muscles? Firstly, we need to remember that the tight feeling, is probably only a feeling, and there is probably no need for our muscles to be any longer or more flexible. Traditional and instinctive approaches like stretching and self-massage, although probably unlikely to change the length or physical properties of the muscle, can work to change the sensitivity of the muscle and therefore reduce pain. Also, taking regular breaks from being in one position, such as getting up from your desk regularly and having a walk around will increase circulation to the muscles and reduce the chance of ischemia and pain.

Where we come in...

As osteopaths we can help to reduce tight, stiff or aching sensations through joint mobilisation techniques and soft tissue massage. Techniques such as manipulation (the cracking one) can also reduce the sensitivity of the nervous system and relieve pain. Advising on appropriate exercises can help painful muscles become stronger and more resilient to the stresses of everyday life. By helping people understand the causes of their pain, we can also reduce the anxiety associated with this, which has a positive influence on our pain perception and recovery. Ultimately, movement is medicine, and with a little help we can all move and start feeling better.