Like many working people, computer specialists, goldsmiths and lorry drivers are prime candidates for muscle tension.
At risk is anyone who has to stay concentrated for hours at a time or who puts uneven strain on the body.
A sports injury, an age-related overuse injury or a static defect such as a lordotic curved back or planovalgus foot can also lead to a stiff neck or back pain, noted Nils Graf Stenbock-Fermor, chairman of the German Orthopaedic Association. Since muscle tension is always merely a symptom, he said, it is important for the sufferer to identify the cause.
Muscle tension occurs when a muscle contracts and hardens.
“Certain muscles react this way -- those in the neck and upper back next to the spine,” said Frank Haeve, a member of the German Physiotherapy Association. “The muscle is palpably tense, but the tension isn’t measurable.” Scientists still do not know exactly what goes on in a tense muscle, Haeve remarked.
Dieter Breithecker, director of Germany’s Federal Working Group for Posture and Mobilization Support, called muscle tension “a classic legacy of our evolutionary history.” It is a result of the primeval “fight—or—flight response,” he said.
“When no movement follows, the tension remains, the muscle is no longer supplied with blood and can’t relax,” Breithecker explained.
Muscle tension is a common lifestyle ailment, remarked Stenbock—Fermor, who said humans originally were not sedentary.
Breithecker agreed. “Humans are made for movement,” he said, adding that people who took that fact to heart would have fewer physical problems than their more phlegmatic brethren.
Even little things can help, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, speaking on the telephone while standing instead of sitting, and setting up the printer at the other end of the room.
Psychological stress is sometimes a trigger of muscle tension as well. Breithecker even called the muscular system the organ of the soul. “A heavy workload at one’s job, the fear of dismissal or pressure from the boss’s expectations can all lead to muscle tension,” he said.
The same goes for familial or other psychosocial problems, he added. Of course, pinpointing the cause in such cases is more difficult than when muscle tension results from an acute or overuse injury, or from improper body posture.
Exercise generally helps. Sufferers often resort to movement without even realizing it. “If your neck is stiff, you automatically move your head from side to side or unconsciously massage the affected area in order to loosen the muscles,” Breithecker said.
People already in pain will not be induced to step up their physical activity, however, Stenbock-Fermor pointed out. Before embracing exercise, they need to be pain-free.
Warmth, massages or physiotherapy can bring relief. “A good masseur can minimize the symptoms. Muscle relaxants are the worst option over the long term and advisable only in the initial stages -- that is, when the symptoms are acute,” Stenbock-Fermor said.
After alleviating the pain, the patient should promptly start to get more exercise so that muscle mass does not atrophy.
Stenbock-Fermor recommended supervised strength-building exercises such as sports rehabilitation, equipment-aided physiotherapy or a fitness programme.
Taking precautions in time can prevent muscle tension. “Offset your everyday stress with regular and varied exercise,” Naeve advised. He said that relaxation techniques had also been scientifically proven to be helpful. Yoga, for example, massively increases blood flow to muscles and thus guards again tension.
For people who do not like “organized recreation,” Breithecker recommended regular walks or light jogging.
“Active breaks” with regular stretching exercises at the workplace help, too. Other ways to prevent muscle tension include using an ergonomic keyboard, a standing desk, a chair adjusted to the proper height or one whose seat can be tilted.
“Don’t write your co-worker an email, walk over to talk,” Breithecker advised.
He also warned against a common mistake: “Don’t become a ‘weekend warrior,’ thinking you’ve got to make up for all the exercise you missed during the week at the fitness studio on the weekend.” This strategy merely creates more stress and can lead to more muscle tension, he remarked.
A better approach, he said, is to divide an exercise regimen into small bits spread over the entire week.