Vail Daily health column: Is releasing what’s tight always right when it comes to muscles?
November 9, 2015
Despite the complex dynamics of the human body, we can be rather simplistic in our approach to healing it. If a muscle is tight, we think, "Release it." Effective means of release are numerous and diverse, such as dry needling, massage, active release technique, stretching, foam rolling and Rolfing, to name a few.
Why is it, then, that sometimes we feel worse after release work? After getting dry needling done to your tight upper trapezius (the muscle that runs from the base of the head to the outer tips of the shoulders) your shoulder and neck hurt. Following soft-tissue work in your abdomen to release a tight psoas (the major core muscle connecting the lower body to the spine), your entire back goes into spasm. Or you faithfully stretch your hamstrings for years, yet they're still tight.
WEB OF DYSFUNCTION
Shouldn't releasing what is tight make you feel better? The truth is that this can worsen the problem. The key is to recognize that a tight muscle is never an independent problem. Muscle problems happen in clusters. Whenever one muscle loses its efficiency (trauma, overuse, sustained positions, etc.), the brain will find help from another.
Take, for example, a weak core. At first, the brain's defense is to lock down the psoas muscle to create some stability. This weak and tight muscle isn't doing a very good job, so the brain looks for more help. First, there is increased signal to the opposite psoas, then one quadratus lumborum after the other (the muscles immediately adjacent to the psoas that run along the spine from the bottom of the ribs to the top of the hips). The problem can continue down into the muscles of the hip and up into the torso. With time and activity, the list of tight muscles multiplies. In this complex web of dysfunction, what releases will help versus hurt us?
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A great analogy is a person carrying a boat single-handedly. In time, the burden exceeds the person's ability and he or she fatigues. To ease the load, the leader seeks help from others. The more assistance the leader has, the happier he or she is.
The converse is also true. What if all the helpers sat down and took a break? The fatigued individual is left to carry the boat alone. The entire burden is now placed on one tired and worn-out body. The situation for that one person is now significantly worse.
This is the exact same thing as releasing any of the helper muscles. This increases the burden on the most dysfunctional muscle. Akin to the angry boater, you have an angry muscle. The angry muscle is no better and still needs help. The cycle of compensation and dysfunction continues. This is what is happening when we hurt more after release work. It's the brain's way of saying, "Nope, I still need that."
TREAT THE SOURCE
The key to relief is finding the underlying pair of muscles in the dysfunction. There are different techniques for this. I use neurokinetic therapy and proprioceptive-deep tendon reflex to confirm the muscle pairs.
Ultimately, you look for muscles that when tested in sequence will flip each other (from strong to weak and/or weak to strong). Now you know what to release and what to make strong. With this top-tier correction, there is a snowball effect of relief. Treat the source and the symptoms subside.
Julie Peterson, MPT, is the owner of Concierge Physical Therapy Colorado. She is a certified neurokinetic therapy specialist with a strong background in manual therapy. She can be reached at 970-306-3006 and firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit http://www.conciergeptcolorado.com.