Do you ever think you need to stretch more because your muscles feel tight? Or, have you ever wanted to increase your flexibility even though you could easily touch the floor leaning forward? Have you ever felt that it is suddenly hard to reach your feet to do your nails, but otherwise your muscles feel normal as you move through life? Well, for all of these cases, the knee jerk reaction is just to stretch because it must be tight muscles. However, there's a good chance that much more is going on here!
First, let me tell you a little bit more about the relationship between muscles and movement: Muscles are connected to bones by ligaments. When these muscles contract, they move the bones within the joint to a new position, such as when you kick your leg out. You're able to kick a ball because the bone of your upper leg can move in your hip socket. And, as you know, some people can kick higher than others. The height of your kick is part of the range of motion (ROM) within that hip joint.
So what effects movement within your joints? Our daily habits are a huge part of our ROM, joint health, and what might feel like tightness, but is much more. How many of you sit at a desk all day? We sit and lean forward to work at our computers. Then perhaps we ride our bikes home, sitting on the bike in the exact same position. And, finally, we relax on the couch in much the same position. Though, we might also get in a good walk or run on the treadmill as well, often in that same fiercely forward tilted posture of the upper body. Do we ever get out of this forward bend? It's just like a tree tilted by the wind all year round until it has grown into a constant leaning position; when our bodies spend most of our days in the same position, we get fixed in this position and the muscles that are supposed to move our bones within the hip socket get very tight. Alternately, the muscles that are supposed to move us out of that position get very weak.
Muscle weakness is a very common problem in our immobile society! When muscles are weak, they will have a hard time stabilizing the joint, which can lead to injury. In the example above, we saw extremely tight muscles from a repetitive movement and body position, with the alternating muscles being very weak from lack of use. Now say you stretched the muscles that were tight without also strengthening the weak muscles. You will then have loose muscles on one side and weak muscles on the other. Do you think that the bones of that hip joint will be well stabilized by those loose and weak muscles? Probably not. Will it then be easier to injured in that joint? You betcha!
Another issue we often see is hyper-mobility within a joint, which is very similar to those stretched and weak muscles we've been talking about. However, hyper-mobility can often be a genetic trait, such as being double jointed or being able to over-extend, or push past straight, in the at the knee joints or elbows. Hyper-mobility can also be from extreme stretching--something we see often in dancers, gymnasts and athletes. The ligaments, bones and connective tissue can be pushed past their natural limit, and if the muscles around that joint aren't strong enough to control the looseness of that joint, it can often lead to injury.
What about when you feel like a muscle is tight but it isn't? Or you are having a hard time with one particular movement? In these cases the problem could actually be with the nerves that are feeding information to and from the muscles. You could have a misalignment within the spine that is impeding a nerve's ability to communicate with your muscles. The problem could be postural and not at all to do with simply a tight muscle. In all of these cases, the most important step to correcting the problem is identifying it.
This is where Physical Therapists come in! Your Physical Therapist can examine and identify the underlying issue that is causing or contributing to that feeling of tightness, or that recent injury. In discovering the weakness, hyper-mobility, postural issue, or bad habit, you and your PT can start working on the strengthening and good habits that contribute to healthy joints and movement. It is vital to take care of your joints with a careful understanding of your natural range of motion, limitations, muscle weaknesses and areas to improve. But, the first step is to ask; we are here to help!