Muscle Imbalance: The ‘Long’ and the ‘Short’ of it.

Ever had an ache, pain or strain that no matter how much you stretch it out doesn’t seem to disappear?  Well you certainly are not the first or even last person who has expressed this frustration to me followed quickly by ‘Can you just give it a rub for me?’.  Well maybe all this stretching and rubbing is just making the problem worse.  It is important that when you do have muscular pain that you understand the cause of it so you can treat it effectively and get you pain free again.
Muscles work in pairs, a glorious evolutionary trait.  If we look at the simple joint in this illustration, when we want to flex the joint forward, the muscle on the inside (the agonist) contracts and shortens.  In response the opposing muscle (the antagonist) relaxes allowing the joint to move freely without much obstruction.  The Central Nervous System (CNS) works tirelessly to ensure that the messages between these muscles exchange helping us to move without thought or issue.

So what happens when we have chronically tight or shortened muscles?   If our posture is such that we have a muscular imbalance, and believe me I am yet to meet someone who hasn’t, this chronic shortening of a muscle can cause a problem.  At a basic level, if the CNS is busy sending the ‘contract’ signals to the shortened muscles, it may also be sending the ‘relax’ signals to the opposing muscle on a consistent basis leaving these muscles in a weak state. Where this leaves us is with a muscle group that needs to be strengthened, not stretched, and a group of muscles that may not be causing you discomfort but that need to be stretched. 
Let’s take the hip for example.  I commonly see clients who have a forward (anteriorly) tilted pelvis (common in those who sit a lot, cycle a lot etc.) but come to me complaining of tight, stiff and sometimes painful hamstring and how stretching has not helped release the tension.  In many cases this pelvic tilt is caused by tight hip flexors, quads and lower backs.  This pulls the hamstrings and glutes into a lengthened, weak position giving the client this feeling of being tight.  I like to think of this as being ‘taut’ rather than being ‘tight’, if we release the real culprit or ‘tight’ muscles it takes the pressure off the ‘taut’ hamstrings releasing the tension and restoring balance.  At the same time we add some strength work for the abdominals, glutes and hamstrings restoring balance and hopefully getting you to a place where you feel great and prevent re-injury.  Have you ever thought that stretching your hip flexors may sort out your ‘taut’ hamstrings?  Maybe this illustration helps this make sense to you:

Simples!  I hope you now understand why sometimes we as therapists work the areas that are not causing you pain to get you better quicker and for longer.  If you have a persistent ache or pain it may be worth seeing your local sports therapist for a bio-mechanical assessment to see what is going in for you and then working together on a rehab plan to get you back to balanced.  Full solutions for full recovery! 

Related Links:
Jandas Muscle Imbalance Syndromes:

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