Muscle Tension and Spine

Tight muscles are very common. We were taught in chiropractic university that muscles should feel flaccid or quite limp–just like the muscles of a baby. The muscles are one of the many clues I use to understand what has gone wrong with a musculoskeletal system in the pursuit of finding the root cause of pain. And because we are bilateral beings (meaning we have two of most everything) there is always a mirror image of the same muscle to compare. This is quite handy when I do an evaluation of the spine.

When a muscle ( or groups of muscles ) is tight, this usually indicates that the body is in a protective mode. The muscles only know how to contract or relax and when there is inflammation, they contract. Their main goal is to alleviate compressive stress in joints and guard against further injury. For example, if there is a problem with a facet joint on the right side of the spine, the body will contract the appropriate group of muscles to create more space in that irritated joint. This is often done by contracting muscles on the left. And in doing this, there is a net intrinsic compression in the spine to the discs. This complicates problems further and sometimes generates other pains.

To get a better handle of what I am talking about, below is a picture that demonstrates the muscles at the core level. I hired a medical artist to get these images created to help educate the interaction between muscles and spinal discs. It is the only image I know of demonstrating the interaction of the core muscles and associated disc compression. I have used these images to create a poster for other chiropractors to use in their clinics.

Tense Muscles and Disc Compression
You can see that muscles (red) always reach across joints. The role of a muscle is to move a joint and if the joint is irritated or inflamed, muscles will cause compression in the disc. This can be a further problem if your discs are sensitive too.

contracted muscles can do to the disc
Above you can see what contracted muscles can do to the disc (white structure seen in between the vertebrae). They compress it which can be a problem in itself.

I am often asked: “is my problem a muscle issue or a joint issue?” It is always important to remember that muscles get tight because they are trying to protect you from further injury. There are some muscles that will stay chronically tight because of incorrect posture with gravity and these patients need postural corrections. But when pain is at the forefront, the important clinical tip is: when you find a way to fix the joints causing the muscles to get tight in the fist place, this very often relaxes tense muscles and removes intrinsic compression in the spine. A decompressed spine is a happier spine.