Stress, surgery, radiation therapy and limited physical activity during the cancer journey can lead to tight, sore muscles. Joel Hardwick, ACSM EP-C, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center, explains what causes tight muscles and how to get relief.
What causes muscle tightness?
Muscle tension often occurs when muscles are in a shortened position for an extended period of time.
“Think about your bicep muscle in your arm,” says Hardwick. “When you curl your hand to your shoulder, the muscle is in a shortened position versus when your arm is lengthened.”
That’s why sitting a lot can lead to tight hips.
“When you are sitting, your hips are in a shortened position,” he says. “When you stand, the muscles are extended or in a neutral position. Over time, as the muscle shortens, it gets weaker.”
When the muscle is weak, the connective tissue becomes denser. Connective tissue connects each muscle fiber together and attaches muscles to the skin.
“When you’re not active, don’t stretch or have a sedentary job, the connective tissue gets denser and the muscles become tighter,” he explains. “This tightness limits your range of motion.”
Muscle fibers start to convert to connective tissue as you age, which is why you may find it harder to get up off the floor when you are 50 compared to when you were 20.
How stretching relieves muscle tightness
Stretching* is one of the best ways to prevent and reduce muscle tightness. Essentially, stretching helps lengthen and gently break up the connective tissue. It also feels good, which can help your body relax.
There are two types of stretching:
Dynamic stretching. “Dynamic stretching is when you move your joint through its full range of motion,” says Hardwick. “Take your shoulder for example – a dynamic stretch would be doing a ‘windmill’ motion with your arms.”
Static stretching. Static stretching, on the other hand, is when you hold a stretch, such as a hamstring stretch.
Hardwick recommends stretching first thing in the morning and again before bed. A yoga practice can also be beneficial.
When you stretch, it’s okay to feel a slight discomfort in the muscle, but never pain. If you have pain, stop the movement immediately.
Foam rolling for muscle tightness
Foam rolling* is another way to loosen tight muscles. It’s especially helpful for the lower body and back, Hardwick says.
“Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release, where you apply pressure to the muscle to break up connective tissue,” he explains.
When you relax your muscles, it can improve your range of motion, help alleviate muscle imbalances, improve your circulation and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
“It’s really easy to develop muscle tension,” says Hardwick. “We all go through our lives sitting, watching TV and spending time in ‘shortened’ positions. One of the best ways to combat this is by stretching and moving more.”
See more fun, feel-good ways to get moving.
*Always consult with your physician before stretching or foam rolling if you are going through cancer treatment. It can also be helpful to meet with an exercise physiologist to learn how to use the foam roller and stretch properly.