Do you have chronically tight hamstrings or suffer from repeated hamstring strains? Have you continually stretched but experienced little change in your overall flexibility?
A common injury that I have experienced personally and hear about from my patients is tight hamstrings and hamstring strains. Growing up playing soccer I always had tight hamstrings and just assumed it came with the territory (along with big thighs of course). We were always told to stretch but since I was never really that committed to my pre and post game stretching I figured my chronically tight hamstrings were the result. It wasn’t until I started my studies as a chiropractor that I learned more about more about what it means to have a “tight” muscle and yes, it’s more complicated than you might think.
When a muscle feels tight there can be several underlying mechanisms behind that feeling of tightness. This is why it is important for both the therapist and patient to understand why the muscle is tight in order to direct appropriate training and treatment.
Reason #1: Scar Tissue
One of the reasons a muscle may feel tight is due to restriction caused by scar tissue/fibrosis. Following injuries such as a hamstring strains, scar tissue develops and may restrict range of motion of the muscles and surrounding connective tissues (ie: the fascia). This scar tissue can also create friction, irritation and pain. In this case, hands on soft-tissue therapy may be necessary to help reorganize the dense, irregular scar tissue and to promote proper realignment of the tissues. If you’ve had previous injuries (strains/sprains) that have not been treated, soft-tissue therapies like Active Release (ART) and Functional Release (FR) are both great techniques that can help to improve tension related to fibrosis and scar tissue.
Reason #2: Neurological Tension
A muscle may also feel tight due to increased tone or neurological drive. In this case, the muscle is receiving signals from the nervous system to become more tense or tight. This is typically a protective or adaptive measure and is why passive stretching doesn’t always solve the problem.
Following injury the muscles and other soft-tissues will maintain a level of contraction and tension in order to prevent further injury. This neurological tension, in addition to the scar tissue that develops after injuries such as hamstring strains and can lead to restricted range of motion and create pain and tightness. Sometimes there is neurological tension in muscles and tissues that have never been injured. In this case the nervous system restricts certain ranges of motion because it identifies these ranges as unsafe. These ranges are identified as unsafe when we don’t train or use them on a regular basis. Remember… if you don’t use it, you loose it!
Most of us have good muscular strength in the mid-range but lack strength in the short and long ranges. When we lack strength or control the nervous system will tell certain muscles to ‘tighten’ when we attempt to move into the untrained range. This is why it’s so important to strengthen the muscles and tissues through their full range. When we train this way we can help to decrease the chance of injury while improving the overall mobility and health of our joints and tissues. A great way to retrain control and improve mobility is to utilize exercises from a great movement based system called Functional Range Conditioning, which I utilize with all of my patients.