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How to Release Chronically Tight Muscles

Upper body view of man stretching upper back with arms behind his back on how to release chronically tight muscles. black and white.

 

Experiencing tight muscles anywhere in the body can feel restrictive, inhibiting strength and range of motion, leading to suboptimal performance. If you’re athletically inclined, your changes in performance may seem self-limiting, making progress difficult. After all, for having our bodies as long as we do, any minute downward changes in functionality can be noticeable - but, hopefully fixable! 

Did you know that our (skeletal) muscles make up the largest organ of the human body? Therefore, if you feel knots, tension, or discomfort, it’s no mystery that your muscles will need attention and maintenance to feel their best. Muscles are involved in every activity of daily living so their importance cannot be underestimated. Let’s discuss in more detail how to release chronically tight muscles. 

 

What Causes Tight Muscles?

Muscle tightness is (for the most part) exactly what it sounds like. If your muscles are tight, you lack flexibility and are unable to perform full range of motion (ROM) without experiencing discomfort to the area or joint. Tightness can feel like the muscle is “shorter” with some reports being described as numbness, swelling, or tingling - showing how subjectively unique this condition can be. 

Our muscles are capable of doing repetitive movements and with varying loads, such as with runners, for example. Running involves repeated movements, with the same muscles (quadriceps, calves, glutes, hamstrings, etc.) being used for long periods - raising the risk of muscle tightness and injury. Muscle injury or trauma that has not been properly healed after some time can also lead to long-term pain or tightness. Because of how often we use our muscles, factors such as repetition and time under tension can also contribute.

On the other side of the mobility spectrum, a sedentary lifestyle can be a source of muscle stiffness. As stated in a 2021 study, “…prolonged sitting periods without regular muscle contractions significantly increased back muscle stiffness.” Turns out, that sitting for too long may also be the cause for lower back pain!

Unless you have been diagnosed, other causes of chronically tight muscles include fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome. Muscles affected by these conditions would feel tightness along with localized pain or tenderness. True relief in these cases may not be achieved unless pharmacological intervention. 

Proper hydration of our tissues can also affect fascial elasticity and muscle function. The more hydrated your tissues are, the more flexible they are. With severe hydration and imbalanced electrolyte levels (if your sodium levels are low), cramping can occur, increasing the risk of injury. 

With all these possible causes taken into consideration, the key point is: that any muscle or body part being repetitively used (or misused) is at risk for tightness. For a runner, it may be lower extremities and for an office worker who does constant overtime, they may have lower back pain!


Methods on How to Release Chronically Tight Muscles

It is possible to release chronically tight muscles with some tweaking in your routine, trying out what works for you, and seeing an expert, if necessary. Keep reading and see what options you’d be willing to try.

Stretching Routine and Flexibility Exercises

Stretching is the easiest action to incorporate into your everyday routine to feel benefits for stiff and tight muscles. According to the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, the range of motion is efficiently increased by static stretching for 15 to 30 seconds. The correct way to include stretching before exercise is to warm up and then actively perform each stretch for 15-30 seconds, repeating the process 2 to 4 times. This is suggested at a minimum of 2 to 3 times a week. 

An easy way to incorporate stretching if you have an office job or one that requires prolonged sitting is to set a timer and get up at least once every hour! Not only does this help with circulation but energy levels as well! 

 

Man using green foam roller to perform stretch on upper back on how to release chronically tight muscles.

Using a foam roller at home can also help and is a tool widely available for purchase. People who suffer from myofascial pain syndrome, along with athletes and therapists have reported that proper use of foam rolling techniques can benefit range of motion and recovery. 

Proper Recovery After Any Injury

The standard protocol for at-home recovery for healing your injured muscle would be:

  1. Rest
  2. Ice
  3. Compression
  4. Elevation

Think of the acronym RICE. If there is any possibility of injury or you feel discomfort brewing, this method may help and is easy to perform. Skipping proper recovery is not the same as going hard with your routines in terms of gains. Making sure that you get quality rest and recovery will help you make progress in the long run. 

Professional and Specialist Help

If you feel you need more help with releasing chronically tight muscles, some experts to consider seeing are a chiropractor or a physical therapist. With their knowledge and experience, they may be able to help pinpoint the issue or provide a stretching/exercise routine that can help you. A chiropractor may see you on a walk-in basis, while you would normally need your medical doctor’s referral for physical therapy. 

I have seen a chiropractor on one occasion for (acute, not chronic) back muscle tightness that prevented me from bending or twisting at the waist. I had to call off work and put myself on bedrest until I saw a chiropractor. Normally I would have tried to sleep it off without any thought, however, the specific area (lower right back pain) was new to me - I couldn’t be sure that it was a pinched nerve, and thoughts of permanent disability worried me. 

Luckily I was able to see a chiropractor the next day. With that office visit, I was relieved from pain almost instantly - I felt brand new. The details as to what caused my pain remain fuzzy, but he did mention muscle tightness and stress. Because of this experience, I would not hesitate to see a chiropractor for any questionable back pain that affects my daily routine. 

Man lying supine on massage table receiving mid back massage. Man receiving back massage knowing how to release chronically tight muscles.

  

Alternative Therapies

Easy access alternative therapies that you can try out are acupuncture and massage. The popularity of these methods makes them easy to find and may help release chronically tight muscles.

Deep tissue massage in particular may help with fascial tension and any tightness in deeper muscle tissue. The stronger pressures exerted by the therapist are meant to release any tension they may find during the session. If no deep tissue massage is available, other styles may still benefit you, due to the increased body relaxation and circulation you may receive. 

Acupuncture has been used for many years and originates from traditional Chinese medicine. Tiny needles are applied to the body with specific techniques to attain health that “stems from the alignment of qi which means ‘vital energy’”. It has been historically used for symptoms such as pain, nausea, dyspepsia, and more. Studies now show that acupuncture can help treat myofascial pain and back pain. Because of its growing success, some insurance providers are now providing coverage. 

 

Overview of Skeletal Muscle Anatomy

Our skeletal muscles are what allow us to perform any movement you can think of. From big movements such as walking and jumping to things we do on autopilot, such as breathing. Muscles are made of muscle fibers and are connected to bones via tendons.

Within the muscle itself are other tissues as well. These include:

  • Contractile muscle fibers
  • Lymphatics
  • Connective tissue sheaths
    • Myofascial system (both muscle and connective tissue)
  • Blood vessels

 

How to Release Chronically Tight Muscles: Conclusion

I hope this information has helped bring more options to the table for you if it is the relief you’re looking for. Whether you’d like to release chronically tight muscles or want to prevent them, the more you know and incorporate about muscle health, the better!  We have more resources on stretches, informative posts on muscles worked, and even a lower back stretching tool (QL Claw) that you can try for a more hands-on approach. 

 



Sources:


[1] Pederson, B.K., Muscle as a secretory organ. Compr Physiol, 2013. 

[2] Anderson, L.C., Bhimani, R. Lived experiences of muscle tightness symptoms from patients’ perspectives. Journal of Neuroscience of Nursing, 2017

[3] Gregory, N.S., Sluka, K.A. Anatomical and physiological factors contributing to chronic muscle pain. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 2015. 

[4] Page, P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 2012.

[5] Kalichman, L., David, C.B. Effect of self-myofascial release on myofascial pain, muscle flexibility, and strength: a narrative review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 2017.

[6] Kett, A.R., Milani, T.L, Sichting, F. Sitting for too long, moving too little: regular muscle contractions can reduce muscle stiffness during prolonged periods of chair-sitting. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2021.

[7] Van Hal, M., Dydyk, A.M., Green, M.S. Acupuncture. Statpearls, 2023. 

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