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What is Muscle Hypertonicity?
To fully understand what is happening when our muscles are hypertonic, it’s imperative to know how normal muscles function and what normal tone is.
The tone of a muscle can be thought of as how much tension is within a muscle at any given point in time.
Hypertonicity can be broken down into two words: “hyper,” which refers to too much of something, and “tonicity,” which refers to the muscle tone.
This amount ranges depending on what we are asking of our bodies.
Usually, we aren’t even aware that our body constantly assesses how much tone our muscles require for any given activity.
When you are sleeping, your muscles hold very little tension, and your body is at rest.
While you sleep, your muscles have very little tone.
A step up from this is how our muscles are utilized during daily activities.
Throughout the day, our muscles find a balance of tension between each other to help us maintain our posture against the forces of gravity.
Think about how this all works for a moment.
Let’s look at what happens when you sit to eat a meal or work at a computer.
Our core muscles and the muscles in our back, like the trapezius, maintain a good amount of continuous tension to keep our body upright in a seated position.
However, other muscles like those in our chest require less tension for us to maintain that position.
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Now, think about when you exercise in any capacity.
Regardless of what type of exercise you complete, you bring a muscle through its full range while placing it under constant tension.
We fatigue our muscles and encourage them to build more fibers to become stronger.
Hypertonicity can occur when muscles are under too much tension in a shortened position over an extended period. This condition can also be caused by a tough bout of exercise, chronic poor postures, disadvantageous movement patterns, or even more severe neurological problems (i.e., spinal cord injury or neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s).
If you suspect that you have muscle hypertonicity caused by something more serious, you should seek the advice of a health care professional.
Let’s break down why hypertonicity can occur when muscles are under too much tension in a shortened position over an extended period.
When muscles are in this position and not encouraged to move through their entire range, they become accustomed to staying in that position.
A good representation is when we are sitting for long periods.
In this position, the hip flexor is shortened, and most individuals sit with their shoulders rounded forward, compressing the pectoralis muscles.
Maintaining this posture for many hours a day, multiple days each week, can cause these muscles to remain in these shortened positions.
The muscle has adapted to its newfound “resting” position, and you’re sure to notice each time you stand after hours, days, weeks, and years of this.
In the case of the pectoralis muscle, many will report constant upper and middle back soreness, and tight hip flexors can cause changes in the pelvic posture and low back tension.
Many myths exist about the impact of these hypertonic muscles on your daily life.
A common misconception is that the hypertonic muscle is weak, and while that may be true in some cases, generally, a hypertonic muscle is overactive and not weak.
Let’s frame our earlier example of sitting in a different way.
Our body is simply doing exactly what we are asking of it.
It is becoming very strong at sitting with poor posture.
When we stand up from being in the position, the hip flexor is now working overtime because it is trying to keep the pelvis in the same posture as it was when we were seated.
The hip flexor is doing a really good job stabilizing our body in a seated position.
However, we know that humans are meant to move, which only becomes a problem when we take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
When one muscle is hypertonic, it usually means there is a weaker muscle that does the opposite action (these are called “agonist” muscles).
In this case, the gluteal muscles act as our primary hip extensors.
If we sit for too many hours, our body understands that we don’t need to use our hip extensors as much, and our hip flexors become very hypertonic to provide stability.
3 Ways to Relieve Muscle Hypertonicity
So how can you find relief from hypertonic muscles? These muscles are stuck in their shortened position, which can cause a lot of pain when you try to return to other daily activities.
Here are three ways you can find relief from hypertonic muscles from home!
Stretch the Hypertonic Muscles
Stretching the tight muscles that have acclimated to being in a shortened position is one of the first things you can do to alleviate hypertonicity.
Any stretching is sufficient, but you must know both how to do it and which muscles you are stretching.
A stretching routine like yoga can be extremely beneficial for this.
Not only can yoga help to improve your flexibility, but it can help reduce stress, which is another cause for tension to build in specific muscles.
Yoga practices can safely and securely help you stretch your joints through ranges of motion under the guidance of a professional.
Tai Chi is another excellent example of a safe stretching routine that allows you to go through a muscle’s range of motion with slow and controlled movements.
Strengthen the Agonist Muscles
Strengthening the muscles that have adapted to not being used frequently can help minimize the hypertonicity of others.
You can try by simply incorporating more movement into your daily routine to begin using the entire body more often.
This could look like taking a walk after a meal, setting a timer to move every hour for ten to fifteen minutes, or walking the dog more often than you usually would.
In the case of strength training for specific muscles, it is always recommended to seek out a health care professional.
A professional can guide you through safe and controlled exercises to help you maintain or regain full functionality.
Heat can improve blood flow and, therefore, oxygen to a muscle.
Many people who apply heat to hypertonic muscles report muscles feeling relaxed and some short-term improvement in flexibility (i.e., hot yoga).
Heat can take many forms, including steamed towels, heating pads, or heat therapy patches.
Whichever type of heat you decide is right for you, it is important to select a warm temperature and not exceed twenty minutes of application to avoid burning the skin.
Individuals with certain medical conditions are advised against using heat for muscle tension due to the higher risk of these types of complications.
A Word About Chiropractic Care
Suppose home remedies aren’t doing the trick at reducing your muscle hypertonicity.
In that case, it may be time to seek the help of a health care professional that specializes in movements, such as a chiropractor or physical therapist.
Chiropractors specifically can do much more than spinal manipulation are well trained in other manual therapy techniques.
These techniques can include various soft tissue therapies like instrument-assisted soft tissue manipulation (IASTM), proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and trigger point therapy.
Soft tissue therapies like these aim to address and remove muscular adhesions while restoring proper motion within the nearby joints.
Additionally, they can refer you for further and more extensive soft tissue therapy with massage therapists or acupuncturists.
Chiropractors can also provide you with personalized exercises to strengthen weak muscles that may allow hypertonicity to occur within other muscles and give you instructions for the proper use of heat therapies.