So often we focus our time and energy on trying to get rid of tension. And quite often this can help us to be painfree in the short term, but it’s only half of the puzzle.
Instead of only attempting to remove an reduce tension, we should instead be evaluating where we need less tension, where we need more tension, and how to attain a nice level of tensional balance.
One of the many fascinating things about our physiology (and the physiology of all animals that need to move) is that our bodies are actually tensional systems. The soft tissues of our body hold us together, in the literal sense, and allow us to move by shortening and lengthening on demand.
The ability to shorten and lengthen soft tissues (muscles) both actively and passively means that we have the ability to alter the degree of tension within that system. When we do this, we create movement because part of being a tensional system means that our bodies are well designed to transfer tension throughout the soft-tissue network of our body. The result of transferring tension to different parts of the body is movement.
How does this relate to being painfree?
When we spend too much time attempting to reduce tension in an area or muscle, we’re either trying to unlock greater tissue length, OR we’re trying to keep those tissues in a longer state than they might normally rest.
This often means that we don’t focus enough time on shortening those muscles. When a muscle isn’t shortened often enough or to its fullest safe capacity it adapts to that movement pattern, and this creates a decreased ability of the muscle to contract.
When a muscle cannot contract fully and rests longer than it should, pain is often the result. Pain comes in the form of local Trigger Points (what we might commonly hear called “knots”) within the muscle that is losing strength and contractile ability. In addition to this we can see pain move to other areas of the body where those muscles are now much stronger than the muscles we’ve lengthened. This often pulls us into poor posture, holding our joints in less-than-optimal positions and having pronounced effects throughout the body.
On the other hand…
We can also build too much tension. As we focus on training particular muscles to be stronger (or maybe bigger?) and we lose focus of the body as a whole, we repeatedly contract muscles without giving them enough time to adequately lengthen.
The body is wonderful at adapting, and in this scenario it adapts by reducing the muscle’s ability to lengthen. Not only do we have the postural effects we’ve already discussed, the extra tension can also lead to pain by:
- leading to the development of scar tissue – in an effort to support the increased contraction of that muscle, the body creates more stability with scar tissue deposition. The thing is, scar tissue is often painful due to the chronically heightened level of local inflammatory factors stimulating free nerve endings (pain receptors).
- creating hyperactive muscle spindles – if the contraction is static, such as holding your shoulders closer to your ears for long periods of the day when typing, the normal safety reflex-mechanisms of the body can become hypersensitive (because they are not being used through full-range movement).
- leading to a decreased compliance of the muscle tissue – which often leads to a greater likelihood of muscle tearing.
So what do we do?
If we want to be painfree in the long term we need to understand where our body needs greater length/less tension, and where it needs shorter tissues/more tension.
It’s often difficult to self-evaluate on this, and that’s where our massage therapists and bodyworkers come into play. This should be a big part of the work they do with you.
In a treatment, we can help to release tension through massage and stretching techniques. On top of this we are also using the whole treatment to move your body in different ways to discover where more tension is needed, and where less tension is needed. The treatment itself helps with the latter, and the former is addressed with the homework movements we give you.
If you’re looking to self evaluate this, try to find movements that are difficult for you – either in their range of motion, or in their ability to be done with control. When you can’t control the movement or perform it for long, this is an area you need to work on building more tension (strength). When the movement is difficult because the range of motion you have is restricted, then you’ll want to be focusing on lengthening those tissues more.
Either way, you’re finding the movements that challenge you the most, and doing them more regularly.
Sorry, I know that’s not the suggestion you wanted, but no one ever said the key to painfree was easy.