Using the words “pain” and “free” in the same sentence causes people to laugh since it seems to be a contradiction of terms, but it is not only possible, it´s easy to achieve. It is understood that exercising, or even just daily living, causes muscles to ache and will also put stress on joints. When the pain begins you are told to use “R.I.C.E.” (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) – but you don’t have the time, or you simply don´t want to rest! So, you keep going and just as you´ve been told, it gets worse, even to the point where you may need to stop your world! You´ve also come to realize that resting (when you do decide to rest) only lasts for a short time, and then the pain returns. The good news is you can be a pain-free; you just need to know how to find the source of your pain and then how to effectively treat it.
RICE certainly works immediately after having a traumatic injury, but repetitive stress on your muscles requires treatment of the knots that are putting tension onto the tendons and joints. Getting back to basic anatomy will help to unravel the misconceptions that plague both athletes and non-athletes alike. Once you understand the logic of why you are feeling pain, you will know exactly what needs to be done to immediately release a muscle-related pain anywhere in your body.
This is NOT going to be a complicated lesson in Anatomy & Physiology, but I´ve found that a little knowledge of the body goes a long way. I´m going to put the proper names for the muscles and tendons into a parenthesis so you´ll be able to look them up, if you want to actually see the muscles that are causing you pain. You can also see some pictures that will help explain this topic by clicking here and reading the section titled “Muscles and Pain: What Happens Exactly.”
I always tell the clients I work with “the most challenging part is finding where the source of the pain is located, and then treating it is easy”. This article will help you to find the source of your problem. Let´s begin at the beginning…
The Basics – How a Joint Moves – – Movement is a simple process:
- A muscle originates on a bone.
- It then merges into a tendon.
- The tendon crosses over the joint to insert into a movable bone.
- When the muscle contracts it pulls on the tendon. The tendon then pulls on the moveable bone and your joint moves.
All joints have two (or more) muscles that determine the degree and angle that the joint will move. While one muscle is contracting, the other muscle must relax and stretch. A good example of this principle is the quadriceps and hamstrings, and their interaction on bending your knee. The quadriceps originate on the front of your hip (pelvis), merge into a thick tendon (patella tendon) and cross over the knee cap to insert onto the front of your shinbone (tibia). When they contract normally you fully extend your leg so it becomes straight. Meanwhile, your hamstrings originate on the back of your pelvis (right where your thigh meets your buttocks); go down the back of your thigh, with the tendon crossing over the back of your knee and the inserting onto the back side/top of the lower leg bone (posterior tibia).
Consider this analogy, if you attached your pants to the front of your shinbone, and then pulled up at the waist, you would feel the pressure at your knee and you also wouldn´t be able to bend your knee. Likewise, since your quadriceps originate up at the front of your pelvis and insert into your shinbone, when your quadriceps are tight they can´t stretch and you can´t bend your knee. And, if you bent your leg and then attached your pants to the back of your knee just below your knee joint, you wouldn´t be able to open your leg up straight. But, clearly, you don´t have a knee problem, you have tightness in the upper thigh preventing your knee from bending.
Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs)
Repetitive strain injuries happen when a muscle does the same movement over and over, causing the muscle to develop an excess of a by-product called lactic acid. Lactic acid isn´t a bad thing, it´s just the normal residue of muscle action, it´s the excess lactic acid that causes the problems. Your body has the ability to flush out lactic acid, but if you are exercising you are creating more lactic acid than your body can eliminate. The lactic acid tips the scales and the excess lactic acid will cause the muscle fibers to contract into a spasm that looks and feels just like a knot in your muscle. The spasm is usually formed slowly so you don´t notice it until it is so evolved that the fibers are shortened and are putting a strain on the insertion point at the joint.
When this has happened you begin to feel stiffness, lessened flexibility, and a lack of your full strength. You then think you need to either strengthen the weakened muscle, or stretch, but strengthening will only cause the fibers to become even shorter, and stretching a spasm is counter-productive.
The “Strengthening” Misconception
When you can´t bend a joint you are often told to strengthen the muscle that pulls on the joint, in this case, the hamstrings. However, you actually need to lengthen your quadriceps. In fact, I tell my clients to first look at the area where they are feeling pain, and then find out which muscle inserts at that point. If you can´t bend a joint, I tell people to look at what muscles should be stretching to enable the joint to move. The likelihood is great that the tight muscle is the cause your problem. You´ll be amazed at how quickly you will regain full range-of-motion when you release the “straps that are holding you bound” by lengthening the contracted muscles.
Another piece of the strengthening misconception occurs when a person feels they are losing power in their muscle. Many times the person isn´t feeling any pain in their body, just a general feeling of loss of strength. You know you are exercising, but still you aren´t as strong as you were, so you feel you need to increase your strengthening exercises.
To demonstrate this topic we´ll use the biceps of the upper arm as our example. For those who forget, the biceps are the muscle that Popeye would flex after he ate his spinach.
If you wanted to pull a heavy object toward you (in this example you need to keep your body still), you would stretch your arm out all the way and then pull on the object. If you stepped closer to the object so your arm is now bent, you can see that you wouldn´t have as much strength to move the heavy object. In the same way, when a muscle is already shortened by either a spasm or a static contraction, it won´t have the full pulling power it needs to function properly. You need to lengthen the fibers to their optimal length so they can pull with full strength. You stretch, but often people will complain that the muscles aren´t stretching, or they hurt worse after the stretch than they did before stretching. This brings us to the “stretching misconception”.
The Stretching Misconception
Stretching Shouldn’t Hurt!
Have you ever felt so tight when you tried to move a joint that you decided to stretch? The odds are that you answered ”yes” to that question. However, many people complain that they feel worse after stretching than they did before stretching.
Before getting into the specifics of the stretching misconception there are two words that need to be clarified. Many people confuse the word ”spasm” with ”cramp”. A cramp (also called a ”Charlie horse”) normally involves all of the fibers of a muscle, and is when a muscle suddenly contracts totally. A spasm is like tying a knot in the center of the muscle and while it may only involved a few fibers; there can be multiple spasms throughout the muscle. Each spasm feels like a bump when you slide your fingers deeply down the length of the muscle. These spasms normally form over an extended period of time, often from repetitive strain on the muscle fibers. Spasms are at the heart of the stretching misconception, so it is important that you think of a spasm as a knot in the muscle fibers in order to understand why it can hurt to stretch.
A muscle begins on a stationary bone, crosses over a joint, and then inserts into a moveable bone. When the muscle pulls on the moveable bone, the joint moves, however, if the muscle has a ”knot” in it you can actually cause microtears to the fibers as you stretch.
Think of this analogy: visualize a strong tree with a rope tied to it. The rope is the perfect length to attach to a flexible tree without bending the second tree. However, if you tied a knot in the rope, the tree would bend. If you tied a second knot, the tree would bend even further. If you then tried to stretch the rope so the flexible tree was standing straight, you would cause the knot to get tighter and the remaining rope would have to overstretch on both sides of the knot in order for the flexible tree to stand up straight.
This is exactly what is happening when you have a spasm, or multiple spasms, in your muscle. As you stretch you are causing the knot within the muscle to get tighter, and you are also causing the fibers on either side of the spasm to overstretch. This overstretching may cause the fibers to actually tear either along the length of the muscle, or where the fibers attach to the bone at either end of the muscle. This can be avoided by simply putting pressure directly onto the knots in the muscle to release the spasm before you stretch.
It´s now easy to understand why the repetitive movements that you do on a regular basis will cause the muscle to ultimately shorten into knots that we call spasms or trigger points. As I mentioned, when you try to stretch a spasm you can be causing yourself potential problems, and may even tear the muscle fibers.
As I just mentioned, simply treating the spasm by applying pressure directly onto it will force out the lactic acid, draw in blood to nourish and heal the muscle fibers, and allow the muscle to return to its correct length. This will take the strain off the insertion point and not only stop the pain, but give you back your full flexibility.
Fortunately self treatment is easy to do, gives quick relief, and is the topic of my articles, books, DVDs, and the rest of the series of newsletters you´ll be receiving from me.