What Causes Muscle Tightness and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists

Sore, tight muscles can be uncomfortable. Learn more about what causes muscle tightness and how to relieve the pain.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-with-neck-tightness

What Causes Muscle Tightness and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists

Sore, tight muscles can be uncomfortable. Learn more about what causes muscle tightness and how to relieve the pain.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-with-neck-tightness

What Causes Muscle Tightness and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists

Sore, tight muscles can be uncomfortable. Learn more about what causes muscle tightness and how to relieve the pain.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-with-neck-tightness

What Causes Muscle Tightness and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists

Sore, tight muscles can be uncomfortable. Learn more about what causes muscle tightness and how to relieve the pain.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-with-neck-tightness
Table of Contents

We often think of muscle tightness as an after-effect of an especially hard workout, and while that can be true, you can also experience sore, crampy muscles for a variety of reasons outside of exercise. Maybe you spent longer than usual sitting at your desk while working on a project, only to notice tension in your upper back and neck after standing up. Or, perhaps you did a ton of yard work over the weekend, and now your back and biceps are tight and sore. 

Muscle tightness is a normal part of everyday life, says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Muscle tightness can pop up in a lot of different spots and can come and go,” she says. While tight muscles can be a bit uncomfortable or frustrating, they usually aren’t cause for concern. And there’s a lot you can do to ease the discomfort.  

Read on to learn more about muscle tightness, what causes it, and how to treat or prevent it — especially with exercises and stretches recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Muscle Tightness?

“Most people think muscle tightness is only due to muscles and tendons shortening,” says Dr. Payton. "But how stiff you feel is due to a lot of factors, including soreness, pain, or lack of movement." 

And tightness, in part, is a protective mechanism. For example, if you sat for two hours in a chair, going straight into a sprint might not be the best idea. So some tightness can serve as a reminder to warm up first. Feeling stiff after an injury might remind you to take it easy with certain movements for a few days. “Strengthening and stretching a tight muscle can ease many factors that contribute to muscle pain," says Dr. Payton.

Symptoms of Muscle Tightness

The symptoms of muscle tightness will vary depending on which muscles are affected. But in general, there are four main areas of your body where you’re more likely to notice muscle tightness, notes Dr. Payton. These include:

  • Your hamstrings. “You’ll notice a tightness in the back of your leg, from near your glutes all the way down to your knee,” says Dr. Payton. You’ll feel this tightness especially when you sit, or when you try to stretch the area. 

  • Upper trapezius muscles. These are the muscles that travel from the side of your neck down towards your shoulders. “It’s really common for people to hold tension and stress in this area,” says Dr. Payton. As a result, these muscles can feel very tight.

  • Hip flexors. “You may notice a feeling of tightness through your lower back that travels to your hips,” says Dr. Payton. It may get worse when you walk and be especially pronounced when you stand after sitting for a long time.

  • Calf muscles. Tight calves usually result in tightness at the back of the lower legs when you walk.

Muscle Tightness: A Hinge Health Perspective

If your muscles feel tight, it’s understandable that you may be reluctant to move, especially if you experienced more tightness after being active. But know this: Movement is often the fastest way to a healthier, more flexible body. As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine. Movement helps rehab sore muscles by increasing blood flow, and gradually improving the muscle’s strength and flexibility. 

Your muscles — especially the big muscle groups that are prone to tightness — are very resilient and designed to recover from the kinds of issues that naturally can happen in the course of everyday activities or during exercise.

A well-rounded cardio, strength, and stretching routine can help to keep your muscles healthy and prevent tightness and pain. A physical therapist can also work with you on a strengthening and stretching plan that targets your affected muscles. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Causes of Muscle Tightness 

What causes tight muscles? There can be a few reasons, says Dr. Payton. They include:

  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). “When you do a tough workout, muscle soreness is common,” says Dr. Payton. “This is often an initial side effect as your body becomes stronger.” Usually the soreness is less pronounced after your second workout. But if you find the amount of soreness or stiffness to be too disruptive or too painful, reach out to a physical therapist on how to modify your workouts.

  • Muscle strain. “When you pull a muscle, you may notice tightness or tension — it’s your body’s way of protecting the injured area while it recovers,” says Dr. Payton.

  • Sitting too much. If you’re sedentary in the same position for much of the day, like when working at a desk, you may experience tense, tight muscles over time. “Our muscles aren’t designed to stay in the same position for long,” says Dr. Payton. “When they do, they can tighten up.” 

  • Stress. If you’re frazzled or anxious, it’s common to unconsciously tense certain muscles, like the shoulders, for instance, which can lead to tightness and neck pain.  

Treatment Options for Muscle Tightness

The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for tight muscles:

  • Heat. “I get a lot of questions from patients on how to relax muscles, and oftentimes heat is best,” says Dr. Payton. She recommends that you apply heat, like a hot water bottle or warm wet towel, for five to 10 minutes before doing the stretches below.

  • Physical activity. Movement and exercise may feel counterintuitive if your muscles are stiff and tight, but they truly help to relieve symptoms. “They increase blood flow to the affected muscles, which helps relax the area,” says Dr. Payton. If you feel particularly stiff, consider a water workout — a 2021 review found that it can help relieve muscle stiffness. 

  • Foam rolling. Research suggests this technique may help to loosen stiff muscles. Use a foam roller on the tight area for a few minutes before you work out.

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can provide advice on how to relieve body stiffness with tailored exercises for your affected muscles. 

  • Deep breathing exercises. “Shallow breathing, like when you’re stressed, tightens your muscles,” says Dr. Payton. “But deep breathing exercises help your whole body relax, so that your muscles can relax, too.” She recommends box breathing, where you breathe in through your nose as you count to four, hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale for another count of four.

  • Healthy eating. Dehydration can contribute to muscle tightness, so focus on consuming plenty of fluids throughout the day. Aim to drink for half your body weight in ounces of water. You also want to make sure that you get enough magnesium and calcium in your diet, since they are both key for muscle health. You can usually get enough through foods like avocados, bananas, dairy products, dark leafy greens, fatty fish, fortified orange juice, and nuts and seeds.

Stretches to Help Relieve Muscle Tightness

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Seated Hamstring Stretch
  • Kickstand RDL
  • Seated Trap Stretch
  • Seated Isometric Head Tilts
  • Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
  • Seated Isometric Hip Flexion
  • Floor Calf Stretch
  • Deficit Calf Raise

The stretches recommended here can help relieve muscle tightness in four common areas of the body: hamstrings, upper traps, hip flexors, and calves. They’re a great place to start if you feel muscle tightness in any of these areas. If you are tight in one of these regions, do the specific stretches once a day. If you’re tight in other areas, you can work with a physical therapist to design a program tailored to your specific muscle tightness.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Stay as Active as You Can

Motion is lotion when it comes to muscle tightness. “Long periods of sitting or standing can cause muscles to tense up,” says Dr. Payton. If you know that you will have to be sedentary for a period, Dr. Payton recommends that you take periodic breaks every 30 to 60 minutes and do one of the stretching exercises above. A 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living found that these sorts of muscle contractions help to relieve muscle stiffness when you sit in a chair for a prolonged period. And pay attention to your body: “If you notice that a specific area is tight, focus on stretching it right away,” she says. “This will help keep muscles limber and reduce risk of injury.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Faíl, L. B., Marinho, D. A., Marques, E. A., Costa, M. J., Santos, C. C., Marques, M. C., Izquierdo, M., & Neiva, H. P. (2021). Benefits of aquatic exercise in adults with and without chronic disease—A systematic review with meta‐analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 32(3), 465–486. doi:10.1111/sms.14112

  2. Hendricks, S., Hill, H., Hollander, S. den, Lombard, W., & Parker, R. (2019). Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of the Literature to Guide Practitioners on the use of Foam Rolling. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 24(2). doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2019.10.019

  3. Barley, O. R., Chapman, D. W., Blazevich, A. J., & Abbiss, C. R. (2018). Acute Dehydration Impairs Endurance Without Modulating Neuromuscular Function. Frontiers in Physiology, 9:1562. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.01562

  4. Institute of Medicine. (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/10925

  5. Stanton, T. R., Moseley, G. L., Wong, A. Y. L., & Kawchuk, G. N. (2017). Feeling stiffness in the back: a protective perceptual inference in chronic back pain. Scientific Reports, 7. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-09429-1