• You Say “Tight Muscle” Like It’s a Bad Thing

    illustration of torso and arm muscles

    Are Tight Muscles Bad?

    We often talk about “tight muscles.” But what does that really mean? Without context, it can mean several things. For instance it could mean a muscle that’s contracted tight, one that’s stretched tight, or one that’s been strengthened to the point that it loses all softness.

    On the face of it, tight muscles seem to be nothing but bad. We don’t want tight muscles because they limit out ability to move about as freely as we’d otherwise be able to. But are they really as bad as we make them out to be?

    Rethinking Bad (aka Looking at Context)

    A quick review: Muscles attach to bones via tendons. The bones move when the muscle contracts. A muscle must cross a joint in order for it to affect movement at that joint.

    Not all bodily compensations are bad. A few times we might want a muscle (or muscles) to be tight are:

    • When it prevents a bone from moving in such a way that it will compress or otherwise irritate a nerve.
    • When it braces an injury, which would get worse (or at least not heal as quickly) if the area was able to move more.
    • When it provides stability to a joint that is unstable (perhaps from ligament damage, like a sprain). Without stability, you’re much more prone to injury.

    Which is Worse? (aka Everything’s Relative)

    Sometimes tight muscles are a response to another area being fixed. The first thing that comes to mind, because I lived it, is correcting an overbite. In order to do that, they fit you with embarrassing headgear-type braces to move the jaw so that the teeth line up when you close your mouth and bite down.

    When they force the jaw bone to move, the muscles of the jaw must move with it. Remember… muscles attach to bones. Some of these muscles will become slack as the distance between their ends gets smaller, and some will be stretched (and feel tight) because the distance between the ends of the muscle is now farther apart.

    I often wonder if I’d still clench my teeth as much if I hadn’t had my overbite corrected when I was young. I’m pretty sure I’d still clench them, but I wonder if it would be as bad. I wonder if I’d have fewer issues with TMJD. I wonder if the dreaded overbite would really have been such a big deal. I mean, it’s not like I was disfigured with a horribly misshapen jaw; my teeth didn’t line up but you couldn’t tell from just looking at me. I don’t have any answers. Not yet anyway.

    My point to all this? Don’t automatically assume that you know why a muscle feels tight. And don’t automatically assume that because it’s tight it needs be released, because releasing a muscle that’s stretched tight or stabilizing a joint could cause a lot more problems than it solves.