Almost every massage therapist has encountered a client with chronically tense muscles that are so stiff it takes great effort to massage them. Others quietly suffer from muscle aches that affect both their work and leisure time, making them miserable. Some people don’t even know they are tense, while others are aware but have no idea why. There are dozens of less-common medical conditions that can cause stiff muscles, such as Lyme’s disease or lupus, but the following 5 reasons are among the most common:
1. Stress-Induced “Muscle Armoring”
When a physical threat appears, the “fight-or-flight” response makes us alert and braced for action. Modern life can be filled with constant stressors and an increasing number of people suffer from various forms of undiagnosed PTSD, neuroses, and stress-related disorders. PTSD in particular can cause hypervigilance, causing sufferers to be on "high alert" for danger even when there is no imminent physical threat. Chronic activation of the stress response can lead to chronically tense muscles – particularly in the back, neck, and shoulders. Suppressing or “numbing” your unpleasant feelings can greatly increase muscle armoring. Deep-tissue massage and yoga are extremely effective against tension. Psychological therapy and self-help techniques designed to help you stay grounded and fully feel your feelings can help a great deal too.
2. Low Levels of ATP from Fatigue & Overuse
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the body’s “energy fuel” that powers the movement of muscle fibers. When ATP gets used up from exercise, activity, or stress, it is converted into a smaller molecule called ADP, which must be recycled back into ATP before a person has more energy again. Significantly lower-than-normal levels of ATP have been found in the muscles of patients with fibromyalgia, a condition marked by muscle pain and stiffness. Without sufficient ATP, our muscles automatically contract. This can cause conditions like “writer’s cramp,” and is responsible for rigor mortis in dead people. Some people with chronic fatigue supplement with a sugar called d-ribose to increase ATP levels in the body. Many of them report that their muscles feel better and they have more energy.
3. Electrolyte Deficiency and Dehydration
Magnesium is one of the most widely used minerals in the body: it is critical to over 300 enzyme reactions and for healthy muscle and nerve function. Magnesium can be depleted by chronic stress and subclinical magnesium deficiency is associated with chronic inflammation. Potassium is another important dietary nutrient for muscle health found in vegetables, bananas, and potatoes. Approximately 98% of Americans don’t meet the recommended daily intake for potassium. Be sure to eat plenty of vegetables and perhaps try an electrolyte-enhanced drinking water. “If you have been under a lot stress, consider taking an Epsom salt bath to help replenish magnesium levels. And drink plenty of water!” says Dr. Bomi Joseph, Director of the Peak Health Center.
Menopause is the process where a woman’s menstrual cycle shuts down, usually between the ages of 45 and 55. There can be a number of side effects such hot flashes, night sweats, and libido changes that are caused by hormones. With the onset on menopause, the stress hormone cortisol increases in some women. The higher cortisol levels can trigger the "fight-or-flight" response, which can lead to tension and tightness in shoulders, back, neck, and abdomen muscles.
5. Low Thyroid
The thyroid gland has a huge effect on our metabolism and important bodily functions. Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a common condition and there are "subclinical" cases where people have low thyroid symptoms but it is not easily detected in lab tests. Seventy-nine percent of hypothyroid patients are at least somewhat affected by muscle issues, which can include weakness, pain, spasms, and stiffness. Eating iodine-rich foods like seaweed and seafood is enough to help some people boost their thyroid function, while others need to be prescribed natural desiccated thyroid tablets or synthetic thyroid medication. Seek the advice of a nutritionally informed endocrinologist if you have classic low thyroid symptoms like fatigue, depression, muscle aches, or feel sensitive to cold or heat.