Let’s talk Tension

My passion in life is understanding how our bodies work, how our minds impact our bodies, and how simple skills and tools can help us to feel the best in our bodies that we can.

Our new topic of conversation is tension.  What is it, really? So, we might get tension headaches. We’ve heard the term hypertension. We might feel like we have neck or shoulder tension, low back tension. But, what does that mean? What does this term, tension, mean? Well, I’m going to break it down for you in the easiest way that I can.

There’s basically two types of tension. There’s muscular tension and there’s nervous system tension. Those are kind of two different things, intricately woven together forever.  They affect each other, but they are not one and the same.  We will cover nervous system tension in our next blog post.  For THIS post, we are focusing on muscular tension.  What does it mean to have tense muscles? What does it mean to have a tension headache? What are the symptoms of tension in my body? How do I know when I have tension? And then, what are some things I can do to alleviate tension in the body?

Muscle Tone

To really understand muscular tension, we need to understand just a little bit about what tone is in a muscle. We talk about having good tone in our muscles and feeling strong and good in our bodies. Tone in a muscle means that there’s a certain amount of contraction happening in the muscle at all times, so that your muscle is ready to do work. And it’s helpful to understand that when we contract a muscle, we don’t contract the entirety of a muscle all at once, we just contract sections of the muscle.

Let me give you an example to explain that. If you are going to eat with a fork then your biceps contract.  These are the muscles that bend the elbow and that bring the hand to the face.  They do contract, but NOT the entirety of your bicep. You can notice that the amount of muscular contraction that takes is not very much.

Now, if I add weight into it, and now I’m holding a heavier thing, more of my bicep has to contract. And if I went to pick up a chair, or a child, or something heavier, even more of my biceps contract, as well as the brachialis and the brachioradialis, muscles that contribute to flection at the elbow.  If all of my bicep muscles contracted just to pick up a fork full of food, I’d stab myself in the face with the fork because there’d be so much power in it. The whole of your muscle does not contract at once. If it did, you would be exhausted all the time, because you would be using all of your power, wasted away really quickly.

See, our bodies read how much force it takes to do the job we’re asking it to do. And then our bodies will keep a good amount of sugars and energy molecules available and just the right number of fibers contracting in our muscles at any given time, so that we can do the work that we’re asking it to do. If I’m picking things up and moving them around regularly, then my muscles will get used to it and think that’s the amount of contraction that we’re going to hold regularly. Building strength is building tone, which means more of your muscle is going to be held in contraction at once.

Now, here’s another cool thing about tone. When we have tone, one part of the muscle contracts and another part is just waiting for the signal. One part contracts, and another part lets go.  As the signal moves through the muscles and tells it tone is needed, then new parts contract, and the other parts then let go. It’s like a flowing sequence of contraction through your muscle.

Muscle Tension

Now this is an important part to understand.  When we have tension, it’s like tone gone rogue. As the signal flows through a  muscle, and new parts contract, old parts just don’t let go.  They stay contracted.  Parts of the muscle didn’t stop receiving a message to contract.

So, there is a part that is staying stuck. It’s staying contracted while the rest of the muscle is flowing through its tone. Over time, this muscle begins to use up all the energy molecules around that stuck.  It acts like a needy area in your muscles that, no matter what you do, you can’t appease it. It’s stuck in contraction. It gets aggravated. There’s a loss of circulation in the muscle, and it becomes a little dry and sticky.

This is what tension is. It’s when a part of the muscle is stuck in contraction. So how do we know if part of our muscle is stuck in contraction? How do we know if we have tension, as opposed to just good tone in our muscles? Well, one thing to understand is that tension is kind of what our muscles do. Over time, our muscles will just get stuck in some places. We can pretty much guarantee that somewhere in your body, you’re holding little spots of tension. Now, in my world, as a trigger point therapist, those are called trigger points.

Trigger points are, by definition, focal points of tension in the muscles.  And it’s just what muscles do. Our muscles will hold certain areas. They just get stuck. Just understand that that’s something that happens and it’s natural.

Most people who come to see me have tension in one of a few areas. It’s neck and shoulders, low back, or hips. It’s commonly going to be places where our posture has a lot of impact on the muscles.  As well, the mobility we have has a lot to do with how much tension our bodies hold in those areas. Places of higher mobility tend to carry the most tension because they are the muscles working most in that area.

So how do I know if I have tension? Pretty much, I do. Everyone does. It’s totally normal to have some trigger points, some focal points of tension in your muscles.

Stop stretching tight muscles

Now, here’s the rub, though. When you have tension, trigger points, and stuck places in your muscles, over time, you build more tension around those areas. It’s protective tension. So that’s when things get even trickier, because the tension begins to spread. You ever felt that? You feel like, “Oh, I have this little spot,” and then it gets bigger and bigger.  What is that?

Let me explain to you what’s happening in that situation. When you have a trigger point, it’s small. Most people will say, “Oh, I feel some tension. I feel some tightness, some restriction in my muscle. I’m going to start stretching it.” They pull on it, and pull on it. Now here’s the thing. It’s exactly the opposite of what you should do. Stop stretching your muscles where you feel tension. Just stop.

I ran yoga studios for 14 years. I’m a body worker, and a yoga instructor, and a foam rolling instructor. And I’m going to tell you to stop stretching the parts of your body where you’re feeling tension. Why?  Because stretching sometimes makes it worse. Imagine a rope with a knot in the middle. You pull on the ends of the rope. What happens to the knot? The knot itself gets tighter. That’s where all the pull goes to. Your muscle is living tissue. When you pull on the muscle, the muscle responds back. That part that’s stuck in contraction, those actin and myosin fibers have slid together. They’re stuck in tension now. You go to pull on it to stretch it and it can’t stretch. A part of the muscle that’s held in contraction can not stretch.

If you pull too much on a contracted muscles it can tear. So to protect that tissue from tearing, your body will start contracting more around that point to keep it from tearing.  This is really important.  I see a lot of folks end up pulling and pulling on their muscles that they’re feeling tension in, and actually end up growing the tension. I’m not telling you not to stretch. I’m just telling you there are smarter ways to stretch than to just keep pulling and pulling on the same spot, especially when it’s not getting better.

Self Trigger Point Release to the Rescue!

So tension is parts of your muscle that are stuck in contraction. They can’t lengthen or stretch really.  If you have tension and you’re not addressing specific trigger points, you’re probably going to be having that tension for a really long time. But, if you learn some simple self trigger point release techniques, or if you go see a trigger point therapist, you can have extraordinary benefits from that work, because you’re actually releasing the source. You’re going right to the source, exactly where the tension lives.

Now, here’s the tricky thing.  Where we feel pain is not always where the trigger point is.  Our trigger points, our tension spots, often refer the pain to other locations. There are spots on the shoulder blade, on the infraspinatus muscle that refer to the front of the shoulder joint and even down the arm. There’s a spot in latissimus that refers out the shoulder blade, down the outside of the arm like an ulnar nerve entrapment, all the way down to the pinky.  Sometimes, the latissimus muscle will ache in the forearm. Often, the headaches that we feel in our forehead comes from sternocleidomastoid muscle tension. Headaches that we feel that go up the side of the neck and wrap around the side of the head, that comes from upper trapezius tension. See what I mean? It’s tricky. So, it can become really beneficial to you to learn the maps of trigger points, because about 85% of all the pain that we feel in human bodies is due to tension and trigger points. If you can learn how to release some trigger points in your body, you can get rid of about 85% of all pain in your body.  Maybe MORE!

Understanding tension and trigger points is the crux of my work. Tension can feel like a deep ache. It can feel like radiating pain. It can feel like radiating sensation. It can be numbness, tingling, temperature variance. Your right hand might feel colder than your left hand because of tension in the scalene muscles. Tension can create weakness or loss of range of motion.  It can lead to tendonitis. It can lead to arthritis. It can lead to bone spurs or fascial issues. Imbalance in our tensional systems is often a beginning of bigger problems in our bodies.  These are the kinds of things that folks tend to end up having surgery for. Sometimes the surgery helps, and sometimes it really doesn’t, because it never addresses the tension that caused the problems in the first place.

So, I hope this information was helpful.  Check back soon for the next part in my blog series on tension.