Most people think tightness is a muscle problem.
In actual fact, tightness is a stress problem.
The key to managing stress is not to eliminate it completely.
Instead, aim to reduce what you can, and better respond to what you can’t.[Let’s get this out of the way: tightness is not a scientific or physiological term. But we all know what someone means when they say it. In physiology we talk about shortness, stiffness and muscle tone.]
We Are Like An Oil Burner
I have heard world renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin describe us as an oil burner.
Our output is the flame, which can only be as big as the oil reserve allows.
Everything we do, both positive and negative, burns some oil, to keep the flame going.
If you are like most people, you are over stressed, under slept and nutrient deficient.
You have ever increasing work demands. You want to spend as much quality time with your family as possible. You do try and get to the gym or go for a run, but some weeks you simply can’t make it.
That’s a lot of burning, and not much refilling.
Add all this together, and your brain puts you in fight or flight mode.
Now if someone was about to hit you, would you be tense or relaxed?
Well to your brain, stress is stress. Whether it is a fight, a work deadline or your kid getting sick.
Tightness Protects Us Against Stress In The Short Term
You can see that an increased muscle tone is the result of stress, but can you see the benefit?
A muscle, or joint that is tight is protective against stress, in the short term.
That increased stiffness helps to resistance against external disturbance.
But this protective behaviour comes at a cost: it impairs function.
Tight tissues use more energy, don’t drain properly and can’t contract efficiently. (1)
We aren’t designed for sustained bouts of stress. So when this stress isn’t alleviated, the effects become noticeable.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Most people think of going to see an osteopath when they are in pain.
This is like deciding to eat healthy after you’ve had a heart attack. It’s better than nothing, but optimal would have been to eat well all along.
Now, I’m not saying that getting regular treatments will prevent pain and injury.
I’m not even saying that eating well prevents heart attacks.
These are complex events, with lots of factors, seen and unseen that contribute.
That doesn’t mean do nothing.
You can learn to tune into your body, and learn to understand your response to stress.
I don’t recommend thinking about your health from a reactive point of view.
You can learn to get in tune with your body and take the measures to manage stress, in all its forms.
When it comes to getting a treatment, exercise and most things health, being proactive is almost always superior to being reactive.
Use A Systematic Approach To Assess and Measure Changes
A treatment should make you better. That is obvious.
But how do we know?
Anyone can identify areas of tightness and then rub a little and call it a treatment.
To me, a good osteopathic treatment is about working out why.
A systematic approach to assessment takes away the guesswork.
You can then apply the interventions where it is most needed.
This enhances efficiency, giving you the biggest response in the shortest time.
It also allows you to reassess, to measure change.
After all, “what gets measured, gets managed”. More on that next.
Oh, And It Doesn’t Need To Hurt
Remember when I said tightness is a stress response?
That means that you don’t always need deep tissue work that is painful to relieve it.
There are many gentle techniques that do just as a good a job, without the pain.
After all, does it make sense to relieve stress with more stress in the form of an intensive treatment?
There is definitely a time and a place for deep work, but don’t think that because something doesn’t hurt it is ineffective.
How Do You Know How Often?
I have never been a fan of routine “maintenance” treatments.
First, an osteopath doesn’t maintain you.
Second, how often you need treatment should be based on your physiology, not the calendar.
So what you need is a way to keep score. A way to interpret your physiology.
The Old School Way: Wellness Monitoring
Wellness monitoring is an effective way to keep track of your physical and mental state.
Used by sporting teams as a way to monitor their athletes, it is a great way for non-athletes to keep on top of their stress levels.
Wellness monitoring records how you feel and what you did on a day to day basis, given you a score.
This score then indicates when you are over stressed/under recovered.
You can start to correlate this to how tight you feel.
I have linked to a good example of wellness monitoring in the references.
The New School Way: HRV Apps
I’ve talked about Heart Rate Variability (HRV) before, but it’s worth mentioning again.
HRV is a measure of your physiological state.
Lower HRV indicates higher stress levels.
The leading app on the market, HRV4Training allows you to use your phone’s camera to record your HRV. This is much more convenient than using a chest strap every morning. Unfortunately, until now, it has only been available on iPhone. The good news is, in the next week it will launch on the Google Play store.
I will be purchasing it.
By tracking HRV, you can not only see your physiological state, but the effects of your lifestyle.
You can then use this info, correlated to your muscle tone to decide how often to get a treatment.
And of course, you can then use the info to see the effects of treatment.
Or, You can go by feel
At the end of the day, only you know how you feel. If you are feeling tight and stiff, then it’s a good time to get a treatment.
Do you need to be in pain?
We are aiming to be proactive, remember?
This means understanding your body, and intervening before the onset of pain or injury.
The old cliche rings true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.