Updated: Mar 3, 2019
This is perhaps one of the most common questions I am asked at Revibe. It is so common in fact, that I thought a blog would be the easiest way to address everyone’s concerns.
Everyone experiences stiffness from time to time. But when you do, that stiffness shouldn't last very long. Generally speaking, that means that a good workout or a day of hard work around your yard might cause stiffness, but it goes away in a few days. It isn't normal for that pain or stiffness to continue bothering you. After 42 days we label the stiffness or pain as chronic. At this point it becomes more concerning, but not necessarily a "senile sentence".
Before we begin, we need to figure out what kind of stiffness you are experiencing. Are you just "feeling tight" or do you have a decreased range of motion (a lessened measurement of movement)? Feeling stiff, tight and having a limited range of motion usually go together. If this is you, the first thing you likely did was try to stretch through it, right? You might have tried some rubbing balms too, perhaps some essential oils or an Epsom bath, even yoga? None of them worked, did they?
Want to know what will?
In this blog, I will walk you through both the causes of stiffness and the 6 ways to tackle that stiffness for good. So let’s begin with asking that question: what causes stiffness? Likely you have been told that age causes stiffness and that you should just live with it. This common household idea is thankfully as mythological as the unicorn and the Easter Bunny.
Father time did not catch you, you are not cursed, and your youth has not been ripped from you to leave you with what you have left. You do not have to live with it. Age does not cause stiffness! While it is true that age predisposes you to stiffness, it is also true that not all older people are stiff.
Understand this: You are not destined to age badly with pain and a loss of mobility. These things happen because of lifestyle, past injuries, lack of strength, and a myriad of other factors. The good news is that there is hope. The bad news is that once these "stiffness factors" are set in motion it becomes much harder to treat. But, it is still treatable and the sooner you start the sooner you can live without pain. So, read on to learn how to treat your stiffness and pain or to learn how to prevent it from ever happening in the first place.
The 8 Causes of Stiffness
1. Scar Tissue
Your entire body is held together not with bone, not with muscles, but with connective tissue. When you think of movement you probably think of muscles. But without connective tissue, your muscles would connect to nothing, your bones would be incapable staying together, and the cells in your body would literally fall apart. Your connective tissue is your best friend. Even in movements like walking, your connective tissue acts like a spring in your foot to propel you forward and make walking easy.
Have you ever heard of plantar fasciitis? This is what happens when that springy connective tissue in your feet becomes thickened and disorganized. This disorganized and thick tissue is referred to as "scar tissue". It can happen due to repetitive actions or previous injuries and it creates a real problem for people wanting to remain flexible in older age. You see, connective tissue needs to be rigid enough to support you in movement while being pliable enough to allow that movement. If the tissue is "scarred", you might find that certain movements hurt you because the tissue isn't flexible enough to move that way.
What is unfortunate is that many programs aimed at flexibility never address connective tissue more than just stretching it. While stretching connective tissue is of paramount importance, it often isn't enough to make scar tissue become pliable again.
2. Magnesium deficiency.
Magnesium deficiency is a surprisingly common cause of muscle spasm and tightness both because of how often the deficiency causes the symptoms and that the deficiency itself is quite common. Often, people who are magnesium deficient attribute the spasms and cramps that they live with as being due to age. This makes sense because while over half of American's do not reach their daily needs, that number jumps to nearly 80% in older individuals. As we age, magnesium deficiency grows worse and as a result so do our muscle spasms and cramps.
The official name for a magnesium deficiency is called hypomagnesemia and it is a well recognized cause of muscle cramps in the medical community. Not only does magnesium affect our muscles though, it is involved in over 300 enzymatic processes in the human body. This is why magnesium deficiency is so alarming. By not ingesting your daily needs of magnesium, you run the risk of biochemical disturbances in nearly every organ system in the body.
So, why does a deficiency in magnesium cause muscle spasms? The answer: high intracellular calcium (calcium in your cells) and low magnesium. Fact is, calcium is needed for your muscles to contract, but for it to relax it needs magnesium. Any imbalance of these two minerals and there is an increased tendency towards spasm. Since modern North American diets tend to be high in calcium and low in magnesium, we often find spasming muscles and tender muscle points in the American population.
However, it should be noted that magnesium deficiencies are not the only way to imbalance your calcium-magnesium ratio. It is also possible to raise your levels of cellular calcium while keeping magnesium the same. This commonly happens in an American diet due to an excessive ingestion of carbohydrates which raises your insulin levels and something called cyclic AMP. By raising those, we create an environment in the human body where calcium levels can rise and muscle spasms can occur.
3. Repetitive Injury.
Many people have vocations in which they need to produce repetitive motion in order to accomplish their given skills. Over time, these repetitive motions cause microinjury and pain and can even lead to scar tissue formation. That’s at least what the books will tell you. What they don’t also mention is the repetitive movements will cause muscle imbalances. If certain muscles are stronger than others, this can result in joint dysfunction which can lead to more pain and more dysfunction. In order to heal this cycle, we need functional movements which teach your body to work correctly. Functional movements are things like free weights and these movements are far better than the old school fixed range exercise equipment. Functional movements (like the ones we do are ReVibe) will help a joint re-establish balance while a fixed range equipment can promote more imbalance.
4. Joint Dysfunction and Joint Misalignment
Joint dysfunction is an often overlooked cause of stiffness and muscle pain. You see, in a perfect world, muscles around a joint are all of equal length to one another. This equal length creates balance and allows for efficient biomechanical actions. However, when a joint is stuck muscle dysfunction occurs and can result in stiffness, spasms, and pain. Symptoms of this can include pain on certain movements, limited motion, and in many cases nerve irritation. Worse yet, if the joint stays in dysfunction for too long, arthritic changes can occur in the joint.
Chiropractic care is the best remedy for joint dysfunction as they are the only specialty specifically trained to assess and restore a joints normal movement.
5. The Neuro-psychological Effect
The brain is incredible. It is responsible for everything going on in the human body and is the main hub of consciousness. Because the brain is in control of everything, it is also in control of your muscle tone. This probably makes sense to you when you think of diseases like Parkinson's which affect the brain and cause muscle spasticity. But, it doesn't take a disease for your brain to cause excessive muscle tension. In fact, most people experience brain-caused muscle tension due to psychological stress. The more stress your body experiences, the greater the chance that the body will not handle that stress well. When this occurs, you can expect increased muscle tension, spasms, joint pain, and many other bizarre symptoms like difficulty swallowing, headaches, dry mouth, feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, trouble sleeping, cravings for certain foods, and more.
Inflammation is a well known cause of pain. The main cause of inflammation is due to consuming too many added sugars and refined carbohydrates. This can lead to an excess amount of something called advanced glycation end products (or AGEs). AGEs are formed as a normal part of metabolism; however, when too much sugar is present (and that includes refined carbohydrates) excessive AGE formation occurs. This causes too many AGEs to form which contributes to oxidative stress and inflammation. The inflammation interferes with normal function, which can eventually lead to a buildup of plaque in our arteries (atherosclerosis).
A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates not only causes high levels of inflammation, but also can lead to weight gain and obesity. This becomes a massive issue as excess abdominal body fat causes continuous, chronic levels of inflammation. The result is that excessive intake of sugar and carbohydrates can both cause inflammation and create a situation in which the inflammation is self sustaining. How does abdominal obesity cause inflammation?
We used to think of a fat cell as merely a storage cell for your body, sitting there in your body sucking up fat from your bloodstream and happily releasing it for exercise. But this is not the case. Research is very clear now; the fat cell (adipocyte) is more an endocrine organ, with multiple metabolic roles that include the production of hormones.Turns out that the problems are mostly with your deep abdominal fat, called visceral fat.
Visceral fat is associated with the low grade inflammation that seems to be a contributing feature for metabolic disease. It does so through insulin resistance and the promotion of atherosclerotic build-up in circulatory vessels. However, when levels of visceral fat are high, and they are combined with physical inactivity, processed carb and sugar consumption, and being older, the effect becomes more pronounced. Turns out, visceral fat is highly metabolic and contributes to cytokine hyperactivity, which are the factors that cause inflammation. So, the fatter you get, the more pain you experience.
7. Nerve compression.
It might be last on your mind that stiffness could be coming from a minor nerve compression. This can be caused by many reasons, but common ones are inflammation, a stuck or rotated vertebrae, tight muscles (which compress the nerve), or scar tissue which can entrap the nerve. These sort of issues are best dealt with quickly, but often people opt to wait it out and then suffer with unresolved stiffness later on.
Nerve compression issues can be difficult to fix because it takes a healthcare professional in order to diagnose them such as a physical therapist, chiropractor, or medical doctor (who specializes in musculoskeletal issues). This is because often the area of stiffness is not the same area as the cause of the problem.
Typically, those with nerve compression will only feel it in muscles which are supplied by that same nerve. This difficult presentation is why it takes someone skilled in musculoskeletal healthcare to assess and treat these disorders. Nevertheless, rest assured that nerve compression issues are one of the least likely causes of stiffness.
As a personal training studio, it only makes sense that we'd bring this up. But, nevertheless it is important to point out that inactivity is directly related to stiffness and pain. As we age, our tissues become less pliable, less flexible, and less elastic. In order to combat this trend, we must remain active and both stretch and exercise our tissues. If you want to know what is the major difference between you now and you in your youth the answer is: flexibility and pliability. In our youth, our tissues are supple and elastic. All our joints moved in their full motions, our muscles worked like an well-oiled machine, and our connective tissues worked like the incredible shock-absorbers they are. Basically, things were pretty great. As we get older, we loose this tissue elasticity unless we continue to work hard at keeping it. This is why some older people live in pain while others seem to run around like they are still in their youth.
If you want to know what the closest thing is that we have to the fountain of youth the answer is genetics and exercise. The bad news is that your genetics cannot be changed. The good news: your athleticism can. I know what you might be saying, "exercise is important but surely it isn't that important". Do you want a simple test in order to determine how long you have left to live? Can you get off of the floor without using your hands? One research study examining over 2000 adults found that individuals who had to use their hands to get up from the floor (or who couldn't get up without help) were 6 times more likely to die within the next 6 years. Another study found that no matter how active you are (even if you were an ultra-marathoner), exercising more would still increase your life expectancy. That study concluded that there was no "upper limit" where activity and exercise became detrimental to health. As long as you didn't injure yourself, more was literally always better.
While it is true that exercise can make you stiff and sore, that stiffness and soreness will go away in a day after you exercised. But, by working out, you get to keep your flexibility. If you want to be spry in your old age, the answer is to stay behaving like you are spry and to keep on working out.
Summary: The Steps To Reduce Joint Stiffness and Pain.
1. Reduce Inflammation.
If you want to really delve into inflammation, read our previous health blog on chronic inflammation here. It has been said (many times by many experts) that inflammation is at the root of all disease. With this in mind, the first thing any motivated individual who wants to avoid disease should do, is remove the top three inflammatory foods.
These foods are: sugar, gluten and dairy. Yes, pretty much the American diet. However, if you want to decrease joint stiffness and pain, you need to cut out these foods from your diet. Start by making a goal to not eat any of them for 4 weeks and then see how you feel. Some people may need twice as long to make a change because they already have allergies and inflammation that needs to be eliminated first.
This method, which is called food elimination, allows us to properly identify foods that we are allergic to which contribute to how we feel. After 4-8 weeks you can add one of the items back and see how you feel. I would however recommend not adding back too much of these foods because they are unhealthy, and they do promote inflammation.
Some foods should also be increased to help your joint pain. Healthy fats such as the Omega-3 fatty acids from fish are really helpful for that. As it turns out, so are most all healthy fats. That’s right, healthy fats (includes saturated fats but not vegetable fats) have a lubricating and supportive effect on your joints. The fats help joints to stay hydrated too, limiting inflammation.
2. Lose Weight.
Since excess belly fat causes cytokine activity which promotes inflammation (as discussed in a previous blog post), it makes sense to lose weight from the belly especially. Unfortunately, you cannot spot reduce, so you will lose weight from your entire body, including your belly. The excess weight shed will also unload your joints and promote less joint pain.
If you want to learn more about weigh loss, read our previous blog: 12 Keys That Will Unlock the Weight Loss Floodgates.
3. Next eat a low allergen, low glycemic index and Paleo based diet.
There is a ton of research on this, but if you don’t eat foods that cause inflammation your body can repair and recover properly.
4. Take Magnesium.
Specifically, magnesium glycinate to reduce your cramping or restless leg, calm the muscle and improve sleep.
5. Strength train.
But not any strength training program, whole body vibration. Strength training in general will increase the size and number of mitochondria, the tiny cell-based structures that help your body produce energy. This is not only important for you to avoid sleeping all day. It’s important because almost 40% of your resting energy does nothing else but pull calcium out of your cells and magnesium back into them. So, as you lose muscle strength because you are avoiding strength training you begin to decrease the number of mitochondria in your body. That reduction directly affects your energy levels, but more important it also overwhelms the remaining mitochondria. As they fail to perform, they fail to maintain your muscles and instead cause the muscle to be unable to relax after contracting. That leads to knots, muscle tightness, pain, sometimes cramps and restless leg syndrome, even chronic fatigue syndrome. Starting to ring any bells?
We also know that the aging process accelerates due to mitochondrial dysfunction. Some antioxidants are good at slowing this process down, supplements such as Co-Enzyme Q10 and NAD and NADH, which are powerful antioxidants, are very helpful in this process. It is likely that other antioxidants are also excellent in this regard.
It is also important to acknowledge that age itself is associated with inflammation. Thus, a diet high in vegetables and other antioxidants are useful to control any negative effects inflammation has on the mitochondria and aging.
You may have figured out, by now, that a diet high in sugar, and especially fructose, is counter-productive to muscle mitochondria. This is concerning because many weight loss products will use fructose and sugar as a sweetener ingredient. While short-term use may indeed allow weight loss, the ramifications of long-term use may actually be counter-productive.
If you want to be motivated about strength training, even into your senior years, read our previous blog post: "The 78 Year Old Body Builder".
6. Get a Massage.
That’s right, massage helps sore and stiff muscles in many ways. Not only does physical massage help improve blood flow, which helps healing, it also has a biochemical effect. To simplify a complex subject, when a massage pressure is applied to a muscle that muscle responds by pushing back against the pressure biomechanically applied by the massager. Stay with me here. What I said was that the pressure of massage forces the muscle to apply the same pressure back. Whether that pressure is equal and opposite is not relevant, what is relevant is that massage itself does not actively cause the calcium required for normal contraction to occur. However, when the muscle relaxes, magnesium is involved. When magnesium rushes into the cell (due to massage), it pushes the calcium out, causing the muscles to relax.
It does not work if you do it yourself though. That’s because the act of contracting your muscles (to apply the massage) involves forcing calcium into the muscle. That’s counter-productive to forcing magnesium into the muscle to create a relaxed response.