Taming your tension

Muscle tension is like a car that’s idling too fast. The car is revved up and working hard but nothing useful is happening. There’s more wear and tear on the motor. Not only that, but the motor is burning more fuel and creating more pollution.

With muscle tension your muscles are working hard, but are not doing anything that’s useful. The tension doesn’t help you move and it certainly doesn’t make your muscles stronger. It doesn’t really accomplish anything at all.

It does, however, cause a lot of wear and tear on your body. It strains the tendons that hold your muscles to your bones. It pulls the joints tighter together which not only causes horrible grinding and crunching sounds, but also causes the cartilage in your joints to wear out. The tension limits your movement, interferes with your co-ordination and may make you more accident-prone.

The tense muscles burn up the fuel in your muscles, making you feel tired. They also create the equivalent of car exhaust – toxic waste products (called metabolites) that fatigue your muscles and make them feel sore and achy.

You know from experience – tension is not good.

It’s important that you get your tension under control. Not only will you feel more comfortable, but you’ll also prevent a lot of problems from occurring, from kinks in your neck to early arthritis. To manage your tension, it helps to know what causes it.

The culprits

Stress is one of the major sources of muscle tension. When under stress, you become like a turtle trying to pull its head into its shell. Your shoulders round forward and lift up as your head pulls back. If your stress level is high, you may actually notice your shoulders around your ears. More often than not, the stress isn’t quite so significant and the shoulder muscles simply tighten up.

Just sitting or staying still for periods of time will also cause your muscles to tighten up. By remaining static, you are in a sense training your muscles to lock your back or neck in a certain posture. When you begin to move, your muscles remain tense in an effort to maintain your position. It takes some time for the muscles to realize that they can let go and relax. The longer you sit without moving, the more you train your muscles to lock into position and the longer it takes to release them.

In looking at the way that tension is created, you can see that the areas that are most vulnerable to tension are your neck, shoulders and back. Although tension can develop in any muscle in your body, these are the areas that are most commonly affected.

Physical Therapy to the rescue

Massage plays an important role in helping you deal with your tension. As a physical therapist it is possible to adjust how fast your “muscle motors” are idling, just like a mechanic with a sluggish motor.

Physical therapy uses many modalities in affecting change within tightened and tender muscles. The benefits of physical therapy and massage include:

– Increases circulation, allowing the body to pump more oxygen and nutrients into tissue cells and vital organs.

– Stimulates the flow of lymph, the body’s ‘trashman’, which helps fight against toxic invaders. For example, in breast cancer patients, massage has been shown to increase the cells that fight cancer.

– Increased circulation of blood and lymph systems improves the condition of the body’s largest organ – the skin.

– Relaxes and softens injured and overused muscles

– Reduces spasms and cramping

– Increases joint flexibility by stimulating synovial fluid, essential for pain free   movement

– Reduces recovery time, helps prepare for strenuous workouts and eliminates subsequent pains of the athlete at any level.

– Releases endorphins – the body’s natural painkiller – and is being used in chronic illness, injury and recovery from surgery to control and relieve pain.

– Reduces post-surgery adhesions and edema and can be used to reduce and realign scar tissue after healing has occurred.

– Improves range-of-motion and decreases discomfort for patients with low back pain.

– Provides exercise and stretching for atrophied muscles and reduces shortening of the muscles for those with restricted range of motion.

by John Slattery