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Stiffness, tightness and limited range of motion are not always the same thing

An interesting little thing to understand about your body

500 words, published 2007
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada

Feel stiff? Tight? Assuming that you’re range of motion is limited? These things often do go together … but they don’t always.

Limited range of motion (ROM) is defined as a joint that actually cannot move as far as it “should” be able to move (compared to averages), or as far as you want to it move (gymnasts need better ROM than accountants). Many people have trivially limited range of motion, especially men in their hamstrings. It doesn’t necessarily hold them back in any way — it may not be causing any problems — they just can’t touch their toes!

People usually assume that feeling stiff and tight is the same thing as having limited ROM — to have one is to have the other. But in fact those sensations can be completely unrelated to limited range. People with normal range, or even good ROM, can feel stiff and tight. And people with lousy range can actually feel perfectly fine.

So what’s the difference?

Muscular trigger points, or muscle knots, are actually what cause sensations of tightness and stiffness. A muscle knot is a small patch of tightly contracted muscle tissue. Muscles containing trigger points may be hard to elongate. Or their extensibility may be unaffected. It depends on several variables, like the muscle mass and length and the number and severity of the trigger points.

People with normal range, or even good ROM, can feel stiff and tight. And people with lousy range can actually feel perfectly fine.

Most men simply have “short” hamstrings. It’s a natural anatomical, physiological variation. Just as cats naturally have extremely extensible muscle tissue (about 100% stretchier than human muscle tissue), the average man has hamstrings that simply don’t stretch out easily. The same thing can apply to any muscle in any person, just due to their unique anatomy. But if there are no trigger points in those muscles, they won’t really feel “tight” or “stiff” unless you are trying hard to stretch them — but even then, it’s more just a sensation of being stopped, or of pulling too hard.

By contrast, trigger points cause sensations of stiffness and tightness that are uncomfortable and unpleasant, and occur even when the muscle is not being stretched. That is the critical difference.

When you feel stiff and uncomfortable from sitting down for too long, you are feeling your trigger points. When you get up and feel stiff and tight, it’s not because you are challenging the limits of your joints’ ranges of motion! Rather, you are moving muscles that contain trigger points that are irritated even by normal movement.

So think twice the next time you think that you need to “work on your range of motion” because your feel stiff and tight. In many cases, what you really need is some relief from trigger points — ROM is beside the point!

For more information about trigger points, see Save Yourself from Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain Syndrome For more about why stretching is over-rated, and why most people stretch for the wrong reasons, see my entertainingly controversial article Quite a Stretch, which is always good for starting an argument.