Sunday, April 7, 2024

Tight Or Just Tired?

Who says my hamstrings are tight?
I always hear my patients telling me that their muscles are feeling 'tight' or tense. Does this mean that their muscles are 'short' or have poor range of motion? Or is it that the area that they complain about is tight and does not feel relaxed or 'loose'. Perhaps there is a vague sense of discomfort, not pain, just an unpleasant feeling, but too mild to be painful.

I always explain that when I put both my hands on their e.g. trapezius muscles that they feel the same, one side is not 'tighter' than the other. 

If I get a dollar each time my patients tell me how tight they feel when they come and see me I will have many extra dollars for sure.

A patient ran a very hard 21 km road race recently and complained of 'tightness' in his hamstrings for the past 5 days came to see me in our clinic this week. He said his hamstrings felt very hard, achy and 'tight' of course. They even threaten to cramp when he tried running or doing some strengthening exercises. 

However, he can easily put his palms on the floor in a forward bend. (Note: there are other patients whose hamstrings do not feel 'tight' but they can barely get their hands past their knees while bending forward).

He tried stretching but other then feeling a little better for less than a minute the 'tightness' came back quickly. Upon assessment he definitely had some delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMs). I told him his 'tightness' was actually fatigue from his training and racing.

I suggested resting and focusing on his recovery. Definitely decrease his intensity and mileage. My personal experience after a hard race would be doing any of the 2 aerobic exercses outlined below at reduced intensity and low volume.

These low intensity exercises will increase blood flow to the affected muscles and often reduce pain. Pedaling at low resistance on a stationary bike is ideal as you don't have to worry about traffic (if you ride on the roads). An easy swim or just walking in waist or chest high water works well too. Wearing compression garments will help reduce DOMs as well. These above mentioned strategies do have some support in the research.

After he recovers fully, I suggested testing for strength imbalances and deficits as weaker muscles do tend to fatigue more rapidly. Specific strength training will address that.

In most other cases of patients feeling 'tight', the reason is obvious. If the stay in the same position/ posture for too long, their muscles need a rest or change of position to reduce the lack of blood flow or metabolic stress that is causing the noxious stimuli. Think of the last time when you spent hours in a car, plane or behind your computer, after you move/ stretch, the symptoms of stiffness/ tightness will be alleviated.

Remember this, when you feel stiff and 'tight', it is just a feeling and not necessarily a physical shortening that needs you to structurally change it. Like other things that you feel, you may feel it more sometimes compared to others. Like other forms of sensitivity, those feelings will change if you improve your overall fitness, strength and health.


Stanton TR, Moseley GL, Wong AYL et al (2017). Feeling Stiffness In The Back: A Protective Perceptual Inference In Chronic Back Pain. Sci Rep. 791): 968. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-09429-1

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