What to Do for Muscle Stiffness

By Dr. Ben Kim
DrBenKim.com

Q: I went to see a chiropractor today to get orthopaedic lifts for my shoes, and he gave me a bit of an examination at the same time.

He told me that I was very stiff and I was likely feeling a lot of back pain. Actually I have no back pain but I am very stiff. I have always struggled with flexibility.

These days my upper shoulders and back of my neck are often sore and tight. I have been slowly working on some of the stretches on your website, but this guy wanted me to go see him and he would help me with adjustments, etc., etc.

I'm wondering if I can just rely on stretching (seriously 30 minutes a day) to regain flexibility and deal with these problems instead of actually seeing this guy.

A: Generally, my feeling is that it's best to see what you can accomplish with a regular stretching routine.

In the absence of chronic inflammation or pain from an acute injury, stiffness in the back, shoulder, and neck regions is typically caused by one or both of the following:

  • Stiffness within the joints in the area

  • Tight muscles

Joint stiffness can cause surrounding muscles to become tight from lack of use, and tight muscles can cause underlying joints to become stiff, also from lack of use. So for practical purposes, in addressing stiffness, it doesn't really matter which one is causing the other; just about all stretches help promote joint flexibility and healthy muscle length.

Chiropractic adjustments aim to prevent joint stiffness, typically by delivering a "short amplitude, high velocity" thrust through one of the planes through which the involved joints are designed to move.

Though chiropractic adjustments can be immensely helpful in promoting optimal joint motion, my experience has been that without regular stretching and awareness of daily activities and postures that are at the root of chronic stiffness, adjustments can become a short term fix.

In my opinion, it's better to adopt a lifelong program of stretching to establish and maintain healthy length and blood flow in all major muscle groups, which should help your joints and surrounding ligaments to stay healthy as well.

I would add foam rolling to your stretching routine as well, as I'm finding it to be an invaluable tool for keeping muscles, ligaments, and the joints they service healthy.

Also keep in mind that beyond stretching and foam rolling, you can likely benefit from some resistance training that emphasizes a strong core and good body balance. For example, instead of doing conventional push-ups, by doing push-ups with one hand on the ground and one on a medicine ball, you force muscles, ligaments, and proprioceptors (joint receptors that register joint position sense) throughout your body, including your core, to develop a high level of functional strength. By functional strength, I mean strength that your body can consciously and subconsciously use to stay balanced and less prone to injury as you go about your daily activities.

Another example of an exercise that promotes good body balance is one-leg squats, where you keep your core strong, balance your weight on one leg, and do slow, controlled squats (even just a few degrees).

In coming months, I'll post pictures and videos that show how to do these and other exercises that promote functional strength and good overall body balance. If you want to get started right away, I recommend contacting your local community center about any classes they offer that involve Bosu ball-type exercises to build core strength and promote good overall balance.

But not to move too far away from your question, a regular program of stretching and foam rolling is where I would begin - this really needs to be the foundation of your self care program. If you try to do too much with strength and balance-related exercises without ensuring that your muscles are healthy and your joints are moving properly, you might just reinforce faulty patterns of being and moving.

Archive of Stretching and Foam Rolling Posts

If, after spending a good few months taking care of your body, you feel that you haven't experienced significant improvement and can use some help, that's when I might visit a chiropractor, physiotherapist, massage therapist, or any other practitioner that specializes in body work. If your stiffness is severe enough that you can't stretch and exercise effectively, then it makes sense to seek treatment from day one.

I hope this helps.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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