Recently a man made an appointment complaining of horribly tight painful thighs. He competed in marathons and was concerned that he would have to stop because of the pain in his thighs and recently lower back.
During intake he talked about his morning workouts at the gym and concentrated stretching sessions to stretch out the hamstring muscles in the back of the thigh. During the initial examination, I found he could not fully extend or straighten the knee due to contracted or shortened muscles in the front of the thigh. He was correct that his problem was in the thigh, however he was stretching the wrong muscles, it was the quadriceps (the muscles in the front of the thigh) that needed stretching, not the hamstrings. By stretching the muscles he perceived as tight, he was actually making the problem worse. After relieving the tension in the front of the body with massage, gentle stretching and joint movements, I recommended that he try stretching the quads and doing strengthening exercises for the hamstrings to restore muscle balance. After 3 massage sessions to help relieve muscle tension, and a new regimen of stretching and strengthening exercises recommended by a personal trainer, his pain was gone and he was back in training for a full marathon.
Experience Short Muscle Tightness vs. Overstretched Muscle Tightness
To gain an understanding and feel of how this works, roll your shoulders forward as if you are trying to touch the tips of the shoulders together in front of you. Hold that position for a moment and concentrate on how that feels. Where do you feel tightness or even pain? While holding this position, notice how the muscles in the front of the shoulder and chest have shortened to bring the shoulders forward. Chances are you are feeling little tightness or pain in these muscles. But you are feeling the tightness in the neck and upper back which are now overstretched to allow the shoulders to move into this position. You are also probably feeling tightness in the abdomen and rib area, which have shortened to move the shoulders forward. If you only concentrate on the tight painful muscles with stretches or various treatments, you are totally missing the source of the pain which are the shortened muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest.
These are examples of how painful muscles often are not the origin of the pain and why concentrating treatment only on painful areas is not beneficial and often detrimental. Many times tight muscles are overstretched and elongated and though painful are not the source of the pain. It is the muscles that counter-act the painful muscles that have become short and tight which are the causing the problem even though they often are not painful.
In the example of the marathon runner, keep in mind that the thigh muscles in question connect to the pelvis. The front thigh muscles had become shortened or contracted, and were pulling the pelvis forward and down, which causes the hamstrings in the back of the thigh to elongate or stretch to maintain their connection to the pelvis. Even though they were not noticeably painful, the shortened muscles in the front of the thigh were causing the pain in the back and back of the thighs. By stretching out the quads, it allowed them to elongate back to a normal state, and allowed the hamstrings to shorten back to their normal state returning balance to the muscle group, restoring full range of motion to the hip, pelvis and knees, and eliminating the pain.
Learn To Look At The Human Body As Whole, Not Just ‘Parts’
Muscle pain is complex and except for cases of recent injury or trauma, muscle pain is seldom caused only by the muscle or area that painful or stiff. Pain felt in the back body is often generated by muscles in the front of the body and vice versa. Pain in the arms and hands is often the result of trigger points or muscle imbalances in the neck and shoulder. Keep in mind that the though the body is constructed of many different components, these components all come together as a working whole. What effects one component will have an effect on the whole unit. Once this concept is understood, you will be on your way to finding relief for muscle pain and stiffness.