Understanding Muscle Tension

Muscle tension is so common that almost everyone has a few muscles that are more tense than the rest.

Factors Affecting Muscle Tension Include:

1. Sleep.
Inadequate sleep increases the activity of the nervous system, including the nerves going to the muscles, due to lack of rest and the fact that you’re pushing yourself to keep going when you’re overtired.
During sleep, extra oxygen is supplied to the muscles and this assists in the breakdown of lactic acid. When you aren’t getting enough sleep, lactic acid builds up in the muscles causing knotted “trigger points” to form. During sleep your body also heals any minor tears which occur in the muscles during the day. Without adequate sleep, you get behind in your healing, and problems build up.

2. Exercise.
Cardiovascular exercise also increases the supply of oxygen to the muscles, but does it much more quickly than occurs during sleep. Low oxygen levels in the muscles from lack of exercise causes lactic acid to build up causing knotted “trigger points” to form.
Also, muscles which have become weak from lack of exercise are easily overworked causing muscle soreness which in turn leads to muscle tension. Finally, when muscle stretching is neglected the muscles become shortened, and knotted “trigger points” will develop.

3. Diet.
Can a poor diet cause muscle tension? Most Certainly! The four most important factors are calcium, caffeine, phosphorus, and vegetarianism.

  • Calcium. Lack of calcium and to some degree magnesium in the diet reduces the “slide back” of the muscle fibers (in the relaxation phase of contraction), after they slide together during contraction. Some of the muscle fibers “lock” in the contracted position, causing chronic muscle tension in all your muscles (throughout the body).
  • Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. Too much caffeine in the diet stimulates the nerves that control muscle activity, causing the muscles to partly contract and stay that way. This, in turn, increases the muscle tension. Caffeine also has a diuretic effect, causing increased urine production. The water lost in the urine contains minerals. The most important minerals for muscle function are calcium and magnesium. The loss of calcium and magnesium due to the diuretic effect of caffeine increases muscle tension in a similar way to a diet low in calcium and magnesium, even in those with adequate calcium and magnesium in their diet. Problems caused by muscle tension are compounded by both the stimulant and diuretic effects of caffeine. In order to maintain the calcium levels in the blood, your body will dissolve (“steal”) calcium from the bone marrow, and this can eventually lead to osteoporosis (thinning of the bone).
  • Phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the diet can also contribute to muscle tension. The number one source of phosphorus in the North American diet is cola drinks. Phosphoric acid in these drinks “leeches” calcium out of our systems, making less available for muscle relaxation (as well as less available for building strong bones and teeth). Thus, cola drinks have a triple effect on muscle tension: the stimulant and diuretic effects of caffeine and the calcium loss caused by the phosphoric acid.
  • Vegetarianism. Those who follow a vegetarian diet will often be deficient in vitamin B12, making the muscles more “irritable” and more likely to be chronically tense.

4. Nerves.
Excess activity of the nervous system can also be a contributing factor to muscle tension. This is often found in people who have too busy a schedule, or who have too many things to do and not enough time to do them all.
These people may want to “have it all” or will try to be “all things to all people”. Their hectic schedule may also be due to factors beyond their control, such as a parent, spouse, or child who is ill, and requires a lot of emotional support as well as help with household chores and personal care. This often makes their already hectic schedule unbearable.

5.Cold.
Exposure to cold and wind causes a loss of body heat which in turn causes us to unconsciously tense our shoulder muscles, and pull our shoulders up towards our neck. This contraction of the muscles above our shoulders produces heat to keep us warm, and protects the neck (and to some degree the head) from heat loss.
If the heat loss is great enough, we will start to shiver. If the exposure to cold continues long enough the tension and shivering will cause lactic acid to build up in the muscles, causing knotted “trigger points” to form. This can happen just as easily on a windy summer evening or indoors in the summer where cool air from the air conditioner is blowing on you, as it can outdoors in the winter, or indoors in a poorly heated building.

6.Smoking.
Although smokers report short-term tension relief from smoking, the long term effect of smoking is to gradually increase muscle tension (not to mention the effect on the lungs, heart, and blood vessels).
The short-term relief of tension smokers receive is due to the analgesic or painkilling effect of nicotine. However, smoking increases the levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide on the blood, while at the same time decreasing the level of oxygen. Decreased oxygen in the blood causes lactic acid to build up in the muscles, causing knotted “trigger points” to form.

7. Excess Work / Too Much Overtime
If you don’t get an occasional break from your work, tension builds up in the muscles. You will also become stale and stagnate in your work. A regular break will not only decrease your tension levels, but also make you more productive when you return.

8. Rest and Relaxation.
The effect of inadequate sleep, rest, relaxation, and holiday time on muscle tension is the same as that of excess work and overtime. You need both a mental break and a physical break from your work in order to relax

9.Mental Fatigue.
Mental fatigue from worrying, frustration, and anger can also contribute to muscle tension. Illness of a parent or other family member, financial trouble, job problems, difficulties with family relations, and any other type of unresolved problem can all contribute to mental fatigue.
The worry, frustration, or anger they produce causes an increase in activity of both the nervous system and the endocrine glands. Excess activity of the autonomic nervous system, which controls resting muscle tension, causes chronic muscle tension. Excess activity of the endocrine glands, such as the adrenals, thyroid and pituitary, during the day will carry over into the night, causing difficulty relaxing and difficulty sleeping.
Resolving the problems that are worrying, frustrating, or angering you will not only make you more energetic, but also help to reduce your muscle tension.

10.Posture.
The final factor contributing to muscle tension is poor posture. When we have good posture, our spine is in a balanced position, and requires very little muscle activity to hold it upright.
Like a balanced pole which pulls very little on the guy wires that steady it, the muscles hardly have to work at all. However, when we slouch, the spine is in an unbalanced position, and requires constant muscle activity to keep it upright.  Like a tilted pole that pulls very hard on some of its guy wires, and not at all on others, the muscles are working against gravity all the time.


The following fourteen recommendations will help you to reduce your muscle tension:

1.Diet.
Eat a balanced diet with adequate calcium intake, and minimize your intake of caffeine-containing foods and beverages, such as chocolates, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cola drinks.
Make sure you eat some fresh fruits and vegetables every day and if you’re following a vegetarian diet, make sure you have adequate protein, and take a B Complex supplement with iron, or a multivitamin with iron to make up for the vitamins and minerals you may be missing when not consuming red meat
Eat three meals per day, even if one of them is only a small one. Avoid skipping meals. Eat your meals at leisure. Take at least 20 minutes for breakfast and 30 minutes for lunch and supper. Avoid eating on the run.

2.Rest.
Aim for a minimum of 7.5 hours of sleep per night. This is 5 sleep cycles of 1.5 hours each. Take regular time off for personal time and recreational activities. Avoid skipping your holidays, especially self-employed people.

3.Exercise.
You need three types of exercise: cardiovascular, stretching, and strengthening. Cardiovascular exercise is by far the most important. You need to exercise at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for a minimum of 10 minutes, three times per week. This will keep your heart and lungs in good shape, and supply more oxygen to your muscles in order to break down lactic acid.
Swimming, cycling, running, cross-country skiing, skating, stair-stepping, treadmill, elliptical trainer, and brisk walking are all examples of cardiovascular exercise. Choose one that you like to do, so that you will stick with it.
Regular stretching is important so that your muscles will elongate properly when you bend, and to prevent injury to your joints.
Strengthening weak muscles is also important to prevent them from being overworked in your daily activities and becoming sore.
It might even improve your appearance as well, but remember – don’t overdo it. It’s the least important of the three types of exercise to your overall health.

4. Good Posture.
This helps to decrease muscle tension as well as bolster your self-esteem. There are even courses you could take in the Alexander or Mitzvah technique to improve your posture. Core strengthening techniques such as Pilates would also be helpful.

5. Regular Chiropractic Treatment.
A regular chiropractic treatment will relieve interference in the nervous system, thus preventing excess nervous system activity which can cause muscle tension. If you are experiencing joint pain, chiropractic treatment will reduce the pain, and therefore reduce a type of muscle tension called “splinting”, where the muscles tighten up around a painful joint in order to keep that painful joint from moving and causing pain.
Find out what chiropractic treatments are available.

6. Nervous System Relaxation Techniques.
Yoga and Tai Chi are good examples of techniques that relax the nervous system. As mentioned above, chiropractic treatment will also relieve interference in the nervous system, which will help it to relax. In yoga, the stretching exercises, deep breathing, and meditation all help to relax the nervous system and therefore relax the muscles.

7. Dress Warmly In Cold or Windy Weather.
This is important both indoors and out.

8.Quit Smoking.
You’ll feel better, and enjoy your food more. Smoking is an addiction. Get help if you need to.

9. Take Up a Hobby or Sport.
It is important to occasionally do something that is a mental diversion, and takes your mind off your worries. Sports are an excellent hobby. Not only do you get some exercise, but it is a diversion, and helps to bolster your self-esteem as well. Find a sport or hobby that you really like to do.

10. Take Time for Friends or Volunteer Activities.
Friends can act as a source of emotional support. Volunteer activities are good because you get a good feeling from helping someone else, and it helps to build your self-esteem.

11. Think Positive.
Try to be more positive than the most negative person you meet is negative.

12. Know Your Limitations.
Avoid putting excessive demands on yourself. This includes physical demands, mental demands, and career demands.

13. Pass On The Overtime.
Try to occasionally pass on the overtime. If you can’t, then try to make up for it with time off later.

14. Don’t Take Life Too Seriously.
You can’t be serious all the time. Try to laugh off your anger – rent a funny video, borrow a Bill Cosby CD from the library (“Why Is There Air?” is one of my favorites), or take in a show at Yuk-Yuk’s.

Reducing your muscle tension is not an easy task. There are so many factors involved that to be truly successful, you would have to follow at least half of the fourteen recommendations above. Good luck!

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