fbpx

People use the phrase “muscle tension” but if you don’t really know what that means, it’s hard to fix it.

People and professionals describe muscles as “tense” all the time.  But what does that really mean?  Let’s start by looking at the definition.

ten·sion

/ˈtenSHən/

noun: tension

  1. a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.
  • the state of being stretched tight.

“the parachute keeps the cable under tension as it drops”

  • the state of having the muscles stretched tight, especially as causing strain or discomfort.

“the elimination of neck tension can relieve headaches”

  1. mental or emotional strain.

“a mind that is affected by stress or tension cannot think as clearly”

So that concept of forces pulling resonates when it comes to muscles.

When we discuss muscle tension however, there are more than muscles at play.

The muscle is connected to bones through dense bands of connective tissue called tendons.  Those tendons have receptors that respond to the tension through the entire musculo-tendinous structure.

Muscles are also surrounded by fascia tissue.  Fascia is a fibrous substance that forms sheets and bands throughout the body.

Fascia serves many functions, but those include mechano-receptors that give feedback on tension to the brain and contractile tissue that can adjust tension through the body.

In fact, not only are muscles surrounded by fascia, but it’s a matrix that is actually interwoven with the muscle fibers. 

The important take away for anyone trying to feel and move better is that “muscle” tension is really soft tissue tension.

Both guitar strings and your tissues can be tuned.

Guitar Strings and Muscle Tension

A useful analogy when thinking about tissue tension, is a guitar.  You’ve heard how the strings make sounds when they vibrate.  You’ve also probably seen a musician tuning the strings by turning the knobs at the top.

As the musician turns the knob, the tension in the string is increased or reduced.

More tension will produce a higher note. Lower tension will produce a lower note.

Taken to extremes, the highest tension could break a string, and the lowest tension would leave it loose and unable to produce a note.

So What Makes a Muscle Tense?

There are several components to the overall tension we can measure and feel in tissues. The tension is an interplay of nervous system input to the system, and the physical structure of that system.

That means your tissue tension adapts in both the short term and long-term depending on your needs.

That’s a good thing because different activities need different levels of tension. 

Muscle Tension and Performance

You can think about muscle tension and performance and sprinting.

If you’re lined up in the Olympic stadium for the 100m dash, you need a relatively high level of tension and stiffness in your tissues.  That’s helpful for speed and generating high forces quickly.

You don’t want muscles that are too loose. They are slower generating force.

On the other hand, if you’re going to sleep and get a good rest the night before your race, too much tension will make you uncomfortable or even cause pain.

So how does your body get tune the tension in your tissues?

Nervous System – Tension/Tone

Neural tone refers to the activation of a muscle group, not “toned” muscle in an aesthetic sense.

The nervous system sends signals to your muscles and fascia that adjust the amount of tension.   Some of these signals come from the higher centers of the brain, and others are reflexes that occur at the spinal column level.

The more input they have, the more the “strings are tightened” so the speak.  Both the muscle fibers themselves and the interwoven fascia will get tighter and relatively shorter.

From a functional perspective we can think about how the muscles are “tuned.”

When the guitarist keeps turning the knob to tighten the string, it gets stiffer.  The frequency changes and gets higher.

The amount of tension changes the function of guitar string and muscles

Just like they adjust tension to tune the string to a specific note (A,E,B, etc..) your muscles have a range of optimal tone for function. 

When neural tone is too high, there’s more tension in a muscle and it becomes shorter. Reducing neural tone allows a muscle to relax. 

However, if there is very low neural tone in tissue, your muscles will be slow to react during movements and have a harder time generating force.

You, can think about tuning the guitar in the opposite way.

If there is not enough tension in the guitar string, it becomes very loose. Then it will vibrate slow at the wrong notes or not even generate a note at all.

Likewise, if your muscles don’t have enough tone, then they won’t fire as strong or as fast. 

That’s a problem when you want to move efficiently in life and sports.

Tissue Structure and Tension

While the nervous system can change the tone quickly, the structure of the tissues can change the muscle tone over longer periods of time.

If you go back to our guitar analogy, the structure of tissues is analogous to the structure of the strings.  In guitars and other stringed instruments, different types of strings can be used.

Strings are typically made from steel, synthetic polymers (plastics), and animal guts. 

Those different strings have different physical properties that will affect how much tension they can take, how they sound, and how they react to tension.

Your tissue structures can also vary.  They are affected by your activities, training, nutrition, and overall lifestyle.

Without going into the depths of current human physiology research, there are a few concepts to consider.  Tissue type, collagen, and hydration are three important factors.

Tissue type and muscle tension

In simple terms we can consider connective tissue and contractile muscle tissue.  Muscle tissue lengthens when relaxed and shortens when contracted.  This is driven by the neural input.

However soft connective tissues like tendons and fascia don’t generally lengthen and relax as much.  When it comes to dense connective tissue, it is much stiffer.

If you’ve had muscle strains, contusions, or just repetitive micro-trauma, you body may have laid down scar tissue during the repair phases.  Too much stiff scar tissue will effectively change the way the muscle is “tuned.”

Over long times of being tuned too high or too low, tissue type changes structurally to become more or less tense.

Collagen

Collagen is a key component in your soft tissues.  Its one of the things that can help make them springy and resilient.

But scar tissue contains a build-up of excess collagen.  Not only do they have more collagen, but its not laid down in aligned ways.  Instead of lining up uniformly to allow motion, its disorganized and cross-linked which restricts motion.

But collagen isn’t limited to scar tissue.  It’s present in the extra-cellular matrix (ECM) of your muscle, tendon, and fascial tissues.

The ECM is a gel like substance of proteins and other molecules. They surround, support, and give structure to cells and tissues in the body.

It differs in composition between tissue types, but is essentially made up of collagen fibers, proteoglycans and fibrous proteins.

Your ECM changes based on your activities and your biochemistry.  If the collagen content becomes too high, your muscles get stiffer.  They will hold more tension.

Hydration

One of the key factors in elasticity and tissues gliding smoothly is hydration.  Water binds to collagen and this helps your tissue slide.  Your tissues are 60-75% water depending on the type.

If you are chronically dehydrated it starts to alter your ECM.   Even with out laying down more collagen, the ratio of collagen to water becomes higher and this in effect changes the stiffness.

This stiffness doesn’t just change the resting tension of your muscles either.  Those tissues are considered visco-elasticity.  Elasticity is just the ability to spring back into the original shape.  Viscoelasticity introduces the liquid component and changes elasticity based on the speed of movement.

If you’ve ever been in the water and tried moving your arms back and forth, you know what we are talking about.  The faster you try to move through the water, the more resistance it gives back. 

In outdoor activities, fitness, and sports many of the movements you make require speed.  The visco-elasticty of your tissue will affect how much tension you feel while moving.

manual tissue work for muscle tension

How Do You Reduce Muscle Tension?

The primary way to remove excess tension is through the nervous system.  If you’ve ever had gotten better with just a few minutes of tissue work or assisted stretching, you’ve experienced and change in neural-tone.

Look, you can’t get structural change in the composition of your muscle fibers and ECM in just a few minutes.  Any change you get that fast is based on the nervous system

Nervous System Changes

A trained manual therapist uses different methods to affect different nerve types in your tissues.

Specifically, your soft tissues contain Ruffini, Pacini, Golgi and Interstitial mechanoreceptors.  They respond to different forces, durations, and frequencies of movement.

That’s why tissue and stretching techniques use various types of pressure, compression, and tension to affect different nerve types in your tissues.

But there are also long term changes you can make to reduce tension structurally. 

Structural Changes

Moving through fuller ranges of motion and balancing movement through opposing muscle groups helps.  Movement not only changes the neural input, but also creates biochemical signals.

This can lead to changes in cellular hydration and the ECM.

So can some of the tissue techniques a manual therapist uses.  Long, slow sustained pressure can help affect blood flow, lymphatic return, and biochemical signaling to the cells and ECM.  That can help in the process of making longer term changes.

At Vive we also support those processes with modalities like pneumatic compression, Red/Near Infrared Light, Blood Flow Restriction, and Pulsed Electro-Magnetic Fields.

None of these are magic or work in isolation.  However, they can signal and support the bodies natural healing and remodeling processes.

So if you can incorporate the right tissue work and modalities with better movement, the results compound.

Tissue Tune-Up To Manage Tension

One of the reason we combine tissue and stretching together is that neither addresses all of the pathways to improve tissue tension through structure and  tone.  Together assisted stretching methods and manual tissue therapy help tune up your tissues. 

When you want to relieve muscle tension, Tune-Up your system in both he short and long term so you can recovery better and do more of the things you love.

Tissue work for muscle pliability

What Is Muscle Pliability?

(and why you should care)