Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Ever feel stiff? Muscles just don’t seem to want to release, they always seem to have constant tension, sometimes even pain? What are the possible mechanisms that bring about muscle stiffness and spasm? The answer is: many. In this blog we will discuss those mechanisms, and possible treatments.
If feeling stiff were a symptom, the question we must ask is what is it a symptom of? It’s usually unclear; there are so many possibilities, ranging from undiagnosed pathology to the psychological/emotional aspects. So trying to diagnose stiffness is like trying to diagnose a funny feeling, you know it’s there but it’s really hard to identify the source.
For most people, the symptom has but one likely suspect: the ubiquitous phenomenon of “muscle knots,” technically called trigger points. They are areas of soft-tissue that are painful or tender to touch, yet have no apparent reason for being sore. We hear all the time “Perhaps I slept wrong” or “I’m always tight there,” and yet the pain is merely the tip of the iceberg: for every knot (or active trigger point) that actually hurts, there’s usually more that are just mildly uncomfortable (called latent). There’s a sort of diffuse halo of stiffness and tightness around trigger points, but they are never the cause, only the symptom.
To be sure, It’s unknown whether trigger points are a phenomenon of literal muscular tightness — actual contraction, or resisting (reactive spasm) elongation, or perhaps a bit of both. On the other hand, trigger points could be purely neurological. So trigger-points may actually resist a stretch initiated by a spasm on the opposite side of the affected area. But they will feel stiff either way.
Another clue that the feeling of stiffness is from a trigger point is that your range of motion (ROM) is still intact. Often people who are in one position for a long time, such as driving a bus for a living, or sitting at a desk all day, experience soreness. It’s not the spasm that causes the pain, but a chronically shortened muscle. For many this is too often the case. It isn’t really about a lack of ROM as much as a chronically shortened muscle that has problems being stretched back out.
Sometimes, everything hurts more! All stimulation of your muscles is uncomfortable (stretch, pressure, vibration, anything). You hear people say, “I’m so stiff today!” Or “Moving hurts today!” Or maybe it hurts every day. Chronic tissue inflammation or irritation has many possible causes, and is probably more prevalent and persistent than most professionals realize — trigger points are only the common sub-type, the symptom or the outcome.
So, the symptom is soreness, trigger points and stiffness. Now let’s discuss what some of the root causes might be.
Fact is, dehydration causes a lowered ability to dissipate heat from the body and a lower blood flow to muscles and joints. The hotter you get coupled with dehydration, the more likely you are to get muscle cramps. Why? For the most part, the muscles need electrolytes to properly signal the muscles to relax and contract. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate. Changes in the electrolytes, especially changes in the sodium, magnesium, and potassium levels can lead to muscle cramping. To maintain electrolyte concentrations of our body fluids, electrolytes must be replaced.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are good sources of sodium and potassium and replace lost electrolytes, Gatorade, famous for its electrolyte replacement capacities is a bad choice due to the sugar and fructose content of the beverage, but coconut water is a great natural electrolyte replacement beverage. Excess electrolyte levels in our blood are filtered out by our kidneys, but excess hydration without consumption of electrolytes will flush excess electrolytes from the body. Fact is, you can only stay as hydrated as your electrolyte balance dictates. While reverse osmosis water is a great choice for its purity, it does lack minerals (electrolytes) which make it very hard to hydrate your body. So if you are drinking lots of water, but not replacing your electrolytes, then you cannot hydrate.
Obviously both magnesium and calcium have been mentioned in the dehydration section, but should be mentioned again for their importance in just two key areas. For muscles to relax they require magnesium and for muscles to contract they require calcium. Any imbalance of this, i.e. too much calcium or too little magnesium, pretty much increases the tendency for muscles to spasm, especially if you are dehydrated. Fact is, modern diets are low in magnesium and high in calcium and this will increase the tendency to create spasm. Yes, even though your doctor told you to take more calcium! It’s a bad idea to do that for two reasons. First, it upsets your calcium/magnesium balance and second, there’s no evidence that osteoporosis is due to a lack of only calcium.
There are other dietary indiscretions that will raise intercellular calcium levels too. Calcium for instance is held inside cells via a binding protein and this is stimulated by cyclic AMP (adenosine monophosphate) and insulin. The two dietary problems which induce these enzymes are caffeine and carbohydrates respectively. Therefore a Western diet will tend to predispose towards muscle stiffness, especially if you cannot give up your sugar and processed carbs, and especially if you drink too much coffee without re-hydrating yourself.
Whether fibromyalgia is a real issue or not is still very much a point of contention. The main fibromyalgia signs and symptoms include deep muscle pain, painful tender points, and morning stiffness. But often the major symptoms of fibromyalgia include sleep problems, fatigue, and anxiety, all signs of other issues. Doctors are unaware of how to treat this condition, they rely on pharmaceutical therapies far too much without giving thought to natural approaches. Fibromyalgia is thought to be in a group of diseases under the arthritic banner, its not arthritis per se but it was coined by the Arthritis Foundation and thus is listed under their banner. As a systemic autoimmune disease however it is perhaps more likely connected to a disruption in your gut flora.
A recent study performed on non-celiac gluten sensitive patients previously diagnosed with fibromyalgia showed a connection to gluten sensitivity and the disease. Gluten, which is also connected to epilepsy, migraines, nerve damage, thyroid disease and fatigue appears to be the main culprit. When subjects eliminated their intake of gluten foods, the results showed reduced pain, improved ability to work and perform in daily activities, as well as a reduced need for pain medications. It is possible that some stiffness is associated with low grade gluten sensitivity even if several symptoms associated with fibromyalgia are not present.
Interestingly, a vitamin and mineral deficiencies contribute to fibromyalgia (especially vitamin D3, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, and CoQ10), along with a lack of exercise. At Revibe, we have had a great deal of success by following the deficiency guidelines and adding whole body vibration training. In most cases the symptoms abate in 3-4 weeks.
Arthritis, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity is common. Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis. It not only increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain, and helps combat fatigue, but it also releases something called cytokines, which have an anti-inflammatory effect on the muscles. Of course, when stiff and painful joints are already bogging you down, the thought of walking around the block or swimming a few laps might seem overwhelming, so ReVibe offers whole body vibration which can be utilized in such a way as to releases those cytokines through minimal movement.
Though you might think exercise will aggravate your joint pain and stiffness, that's not the case. Lack of exercise actually can make your joints even more painful and stiff. That's because keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is crucial to maintaining support for your bones. Not exercising weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on your joints.
Obviously doing anything new can lead to soreness. If that soreness does not pass in a few days then try hydrating or backing off a little on your intensity. Short term stiffness from new activities are not unusual and should not be of any concern unless they last more than a few days or are accompanied by pain or changes in urine output or color.
We do not often think of stress as something that causes aches and pains. Stress, after all, is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction, or the stress response.
When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are intended to prepare the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. But if your stress is chronic, these conditions are always on, forcing chronically tight muscles to first become sore and achy and then eventually to lay down connective tissue (called scar tissue) to fortify that tissue against the stress of tight muscles.
One of the best ways to reduce stress is, of course, exercise. But having chronic stress also requires a proactive approach to its reduction. Many techniques exist to reducing that stress mechanism, to name a few: tapping or EFT, prayer, support groups and professional help.
Fixed Pattern Overload.
Fixed Pattern Overload (FPO) describes an injury to your soft tissue resulting from repetitive motion in one pattern of movement, or restricted movements in one plane or similar planes of motion, such as that experienced on a job requiring repetitive motion over and over, all day long. To be clear, FPO can also occur using fixed exercise equipment (machines) versus functional training exercise equipment such as free weights, cable or whole body vibration. If your work patterns are the case, you should consider strengthening the opposite muscles in the opposite motion used to counter the fixed pattern overload, or switch to functional training such as the type offered at Revibe. It is also important to stretch the shortened muscles throughout the work day in order to reduce the overall stress.
Through extensive research and study chiropractors have identified the components of something called vertebral subluxation which contribute to pain and stiffness. A subluxation is a partial dislocation or misalignment of a vertebrae or joint. Collectively, these elements are known as the "subluxation complex". Imagine that muscles are like elastic bands which are arranged in bands around a joint pulling equally from multiple directions. When a joint is in place, those bands (muscles) pull equally on the joint. But when the joint is not aligned one of the bands are stretched while the other becomes lax. Imagine that any muscle under constant tension will likely begin to spasm and ache, eventually leading to soreness and pain. At Revibe we understand these issues to manifest in the following ways:
Kinesiopathologically – This is considered the loss of normal vertebral positioning and motion in relation to the neighboring vertebrae. If the joint does not work properly it cannot perform properly and thus other muscles and joints must compensate for it, causing pain, trigger points, and stiffness.
Myopathologically – pathological changes occurring in the spinal musculature which includes hypertonicity, spasm, fibrosis, weakness and improper or inappropriate functioning which may be due to stress, fixed pattern stress, overwork or diet deficiencies.
Neuropathologically – irritation or injury to spinal nerve roots through compression, stretch or more commonly chemical irritation from nearby spinal structures. This can occur with age, degeneration, misalignment of multiple vertebrae or from an earlier trauma.
Histopathologically – pathological changes which occur to the spinal tissues such as abnormal bony growths off the vertebral bodies and joints, fibrosis and adhesions of spinal muscles and ligaments, as well as dehydration and degeneration of spinal discs can cause pain and discomfort.
Pathophysiologically – biochemical changes taking place in the spinal or joint region which include inflammatory biochemicals from injured tissues and biochemical waste products which irritate muscles and soft tissue causing pain.
Each component of the subluxation must be eliminated for proper healing to occur and for the rehabilitation process to be successful. While full understanding of all components is not necessary, you should be aware of the complexity involved. At Revibe we stress to our clients and patients that they should be aware that pain is but a small element of most diseases and disorders. Pain is a very poor indicator of your need for further treatment as pain generally subsides well before tissue healing and mechanical normalization has been completed.
The true enemy is not to get treated. As your body adjusts to your misalignments it can lay down scar tissue to reinforce those misalignments, which make treating the condition increasingly more difficult as the individual attempts to live with the condition in the hopes that it will go away. The only way to address the issue is to allow the joint to be gently manipulated chiropractically, then strengthened in order to help it to reestablish its normal function.
Do you believe in the saying, No pain, no gain? If you do, then, it is not so surprising you have felt pain and injury from overworked muscles. The trouble with most people is that they exercise too much believing that it's the quickest and the most certain way to lose weight. It is not! Weight loss requires modification of your diet, hydration and a sensitive approach to exercise which matches your goals and needs. Simply exercising as hard as you can and long as you can with complete disregard to your muscles, your recovery and the connective tissue will cause more problems than good.
Muscles need time to recover. If you are getting more pain, more soreness and discomfort, consider cutting back, resting more, or getting further evaluated either orthopedically or chiropractically to determine the issues. That’s why we evaluate and design customized exercise plans at Revibe. It’s not how hard you exercise, it’s the whole approach which counts. Rest, type of exercise, diet, stress, they all should be addressed for success.
Aging and inactiveness
Connective tissue holds muscle to bone by tendons, binds bone to bone by ligaments, and covers and unites muscles with sheaths called fasciae. With old age (and inactivity), the tendons, ligaments, and fasciae become less extensile. The tendons, with their thickly bundled fibers, are the most difficult to stretch. The easiest are the fasciae. But if they are not stretched to improve joint mobility, the fasciae shorten, placing undue pressure on the nerve pathway in the muscle fasciae. A lot of aches and pains are the consequence of nerve impulses traveling along these pressured nerve pathways.
The treatment: Stretch, keep strong and use whole body vibration to break down the scar tissue and release the nerve pressure.
Sensitive muscles or muscle pain can be agonizing, owing to the body's reaction to a cramp or ache. In this reaction, called the splinting reflex, the body automatically immobilizes a sore muscle by causing it to contract. Therefore, a sore musclecan set off a vicious cycle of pain.
An idle muscle can become tender from physical exercise or being held in a strange position, this is typically temporary however. The body reacts with the splinting reflex, which shortens the connective tissue around the muscle in order to protect it. This causes further pain. While this is usually temporary, it can be complicated with lack of sleep (recovery and rest) and an inflammatory diet. Sugar and processed carbohydrates are the main inflammatory agents which consistently maintain the body in a state of inflammation, leading to pain and discomfort. Immobility or inactivity itself causes a loss of strength over time. This contributes to the inability of the body to maintain the support of its joints, leading to a fundamental loss of mobility and muscle integrity. In time the whole area has pain and stiffness for no apparent reason. One of the most common sites for this problem is the lower back.
Perhaps one of the most preventable pain scenarios, especially the lower back, is the repetitive injury quandary. Ever had your back “go out”? If you haven’t I suspect you know someone who has. Here’s the issue. When you hurt your back the stressed muscles spasm and attempt to hold the joint together. In time they fatigue and fail and the body shuts them down allowing other muscles around them to function for them while they recover. The recovery process takes about 6 weeks for most normal soft tissue injuries. During that time the muscle, which is not working properly rests and recovers, but also gets weaker. Now you have a back that is weaker and more likely to go out again. Usually people find they have their backs go out a few times a year, increasing in frequency as their back muscles get weaker and weaker. There are two outcomes that can occur. Either you start strengthening those weak muscles to prevent future occurrences, or you allow the problem to continue until the strength of the muscles is so poor it requires surgery to fix it.
Muscle stiffness is not fun. If you wake up stiff in the morning, consider making some changes to allow you more mobility and a better lifestyle, free of pain. Pain is not normal. It is an indicator of a problem. Fix the problem and you fix the pain.