How do tight muscles lead to major injuries, and what can you do to recognize and prevent them?
Today I want to talk about something important. I see this far too often, though it is very preventable. Sports injuries. In particular, sports injuries that occur because of overly tight muscles that are continually neglected, until it is too late. I can only assume that many people do this simply because they don't realize the impending danger, so let's change that and look at why this happens. Why is a tight muscle so susceptible to injury during sports activities or a workout? Look at it this way: if a muscle is tight, it's basically stuck in a contracted state, even when you aren't using it. Whether it is 20% contracted or 40% contracted, even when you are not actively engaging the muscle, that muscle is holding onto a pattern that it has gotten locked into, and you are not getting the full use of it.
For one, a muscle like this is weaker than usual. If your muscle is already 20% contracted at all times, you are only getting to use 80% of its strength.
A tight muscle is also a starving muscle. It's not getting the proper amount of circulation, which means it's not getting enough oxygen and nutrients to maintain it at maximum health. This can lead to atrophy, further decreasing the strength potential of that muscle. This will also lead to changes in your movement patterns that can compromise proper form and movement during sports and workout activities, which will put unnecessary pressure on other joints and muscles that compensate for the weakened body parts. Of course, that can quickly lead to problems in other areas of the body...and so on.
This gradual process of spreading dysfunction isn't the only problem. Many people find themselves with injuries that occur quite suddenly and unexpectedly. If a tightened muscle isn't addressed, it will typically only get worse over time. It gets tighter, and tighter, pulling harder and harder on itself and the tendons it is connected to, until one day you suddenly contract it during explosive movements, such as sprinting or pitching a ball, and it pulls so hard a tear occurs. The tear may occur in the muscle, though quite often it's in the tendon.
There's also the danger of pulling your skeletal structure out of alignment. Maybe nothing tears, but those muscles are attached to bones, and what happens when they pull so hard the bones get pulled out of place? Pain, and a lot of it. That most often occurs in the spine and hips, as to where tears are more often in the shoulders (rotator cuff) or legs (hamstrings, meniscus, etc.).
There are many ways to prevent these injuries. Adequate warm up before activities is vital (very vital - make sure you are getting good and warmed up first), and thorough stretching afterward, as well as daily stretching.
Save the extensive stretching for after the workout, as static stretches fatigue muscles, and you don't want to do that right before using them at full capacity.
Using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, tennis ball, as well as any of a number of tools out there to assist with stretching is a great way to keep muscles loose and healthy. Getting regular massage, one to two times per month, at least, in addition to the daily stretching, will do wonders to keep muscles in good working condition. Therapeutic or sports massage is also sometimes a necessary intervention for muscles that are stubbornly locked into a harmful pattern, or have recovered from injury or surgery but are still limited in range of motion due to scar tissue.
Keep in mind that if you have a nagging shoulder, hip, what-have-you, but you think it seems fine once you get warmed up, it isn't! Whatever is nagging you is NOT all gone just because you warmed up. The problem is temporarily masked, and you can still be injured, so be mindful. When in doubt, take precaution and get the issue addressed as soon as possible.