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Stiffness as a Sensation Series Part 2: How to “Fix” Stiffness

Everyone has experienced stiffness at some point in their lives. Whether it was the result of muscle soreness after a hard workout, being in an ankle brace for 8 weeks, or stiff knees in the morning, we’ve all felt it.

Often times, a PT will say “Your tight/stiff ____, is causing the pain you feel in____”. And sometimes this IS the case. Your stiffness through a joint or muscle is aggravating your body, so your body is sending you pain signals. But sometimes it can be the other way around: you have pain, so you start to feel stiffness in that area as your body starts moving less and muscle guard in an attempt to “protect” the area. Other times, pain and stiffness can just be signals the body is sending you to try and address too much or too little stress on thes system. And frustratingly, there are times in which we feel stiffness because we are humans with a nervous system that has internal conversations 24/7.

In essence, stiffness and tightness aren’t always the ROOT cause of your pain. Your stiffness could be correlated to your pain, 100%, but is not always the true reason for your pain. So when should we address stiffness? What are some ways we can “fix” it?

Times we should address stiffness The third part of Greg Lehman’s series on stiffness talked about times in which addressing stiffness could be of value. A few of them include:

  1. True stiffness

    1. Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or adhesive capsulitis. These conditions can lead to true capsular tightness in which some manual therapy and loosening up the joint and muscles around it can provide relief.

  2. When more mobility is required for sport or activity

    1. If you are a gymnast trying to do a backhand spring, we may need to work on gaining more mobility if you feel stiffness is what limits you from doing the backhand spring. Similarly, if you love squatting with a barbell but lack ankle range of motion, we will likely need to address the stiffness in the ankles to improve your squatting mechanics.

  3. When stiffness is a protective mechanism

    1. Muscle guarding or tension often comes secondary to injury, in an attempt to “protect” the body. This tension is often interpreted by our brains as stiffness, which is helpful as it enables us to unconsciously take some stress of off the injured tissues in the short term. However, if this muscle guarding persists, it can perpetuate the pain and contribute to altered movement patterns.

  4. When it feels good to you

    1. This is a no brainer. If stretching and loosening up what feels like a tight or stiff part of your body provides relief, then you should do it!

How to fix stiffness?

This is where a shift needs to occur in the world of PT. What if we stop looking at stiffness as a problem that always needs “fixing”? Stopped looking at asymptomatic flat feet or anterior pelvic tilt as “issues” that need 12 weeks of PT to resolve?

Stiffness (just like your posture or anterior pelvic tilt or flat feet) is not necessarily something that always needs “fixing.” If your stiffness is causing you discomfort, your Made 2 Move PT can 100% work with you to improve it. But maybe we work more on getting to the root of why your body is sending you the sensations of stiffness. Maybe it’s underecovery, too much stress, or lack of sleep. Maybe that muscle is being underworked and wants to be stronger so it can support the structures around it. Maybe it is true muscle or capsular tightness. Or maybe we find no reason at all.

Regardless, we have to reframe our perception of stiffness and begin to understand that stiffness is not always a bad thing. It’s a signal our body sends us. That signal could be to move more (stiffness felt after sitting for long periods of time) or move less (take a rest day because your legs feel stiff after doing heavy back squats 2 days in a row).

A couple key points to drive home:

  1. It’s time to reframe what we believe about stiffness + tightness. Repeat after me: stiffness is not always bad. Stiffness is a normal bodily sensation experienced by all humans throughout the lifetime. It is up to us to interpret the reason why we are receiving this sensation from our bodies. This is where a thorugh evaluation with a Made 2 Move PT can be of value!

  2. Stretching isn’t the magic cure to all stiffness. Humans are taught since elementary school PE that stiffness indicates an issue in the tissue that requires stretching, but that isn’t always the case. Tightness does not always mean we need to stretch. There are many other reasons a tissue can send the sensation of tightness and it’s important to begin to understand these other reasons so they can be addressed.

    1. If it feels good to stretch, great, keep on keeping on. But if you’ve been stretching and foam rolling your “tight” low back for months with no improvement, then maybe tightness isn’t the issue, but rather a signal your body is sending you to encourage something else.

  3. MOVE

    1. This point is so important that it is literally in our name: Made 2 Move. We stand by our mantra that every human was MADE 2 MOVE. For people experiencing stiffness, moving and appropriately loading through full ranges of motion often helps feelings of tightness dissipate.

Once we begin to understand that there are a variety of reasons the body can feel stiffness, we can begin to dispel the notion that stiffness=stretching 100% of the time. Once we begin to understand that stiffness is not always a “problem” that needs “fixing,” we can begin to shift our mindsets surrounding feelings of stiffness and normalize stiffness as simply a sensation. And through these understandings, we can begin to uncover a greater appreciation of the complexity of our bodies.

Our role at Made 2 Move is to work with you to decipher signals like stiffness, reframe mindsets, shift perceptions, and get you back to doing the activities that you love. Let’s start with shifting our mindset: stiffness is simply a sensation, NOT a problem that always needs fixing.

Interested in working with a PT that will do more than just give you 3 exercises and send you out the door? Reach out to today to set up an initial evaluation!

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