People accumulate tension.
We’re not talking about the sort of tension that holds our bodies upright in gravity or protectively splints us after an ankle sprain: We’re talking about tension that settles in and becomes fascially, muscularly, and often neurologically entrenched–often contributing to muscle “knots,” spasms, trigger points, stuck areas, numb zones, and of course, pain. Think aching low back, clenched jaw, and stiff neck. Think chronic and recurring.
Where did this tension come from?
A few common culprits include: too much sitting; bad posture; imbalanced athletics; emotional stress; injury; restless sleep; calcium deficiency; aging. Pause and consider sitting. When we sit, we shorten our hip flexors (literally the physical distance between one end of the hip flexor muscle group decreases relative to the other). If we stay seated long enough–say 20 or 30 minutes, then a special group of cells called myofibroblasts comes along, hooks their cellular structure into the surrounding connective tissue matrix, and exerts a slow contraction into the fibrous webbing. It’s almost as if the body were calling for back-up, adding extra enforcement to help hold the seated shape. The problem is, it can take hours for that contraction to completely let go, and in the meantime the combined effect of many myofibroblasts can exert a significant pull. Following prolonged sitting, many of us stand but fail to entirely release the contraction. Our hip flexors remain short, tipping our pelvic bowls forward, and compressing the vertebral space in the low back.
An important concept to bear in mind is that tension swiftly generates more tension.
Excessive sitting, bad posture, imbalanced athletic activity, etc causes muscles to become overly tense or hypertonic. Hypertonicity leads to retention of metabolic waste, localized hypoxia, ischemia, and/or irritation. These conditions further alter the local blood biochemistry, leading to local energy crises (literally, the muscle and fascial tissues fail to receive proper nutrition), which predisposes the formation of trigger points and tender points. These points are painful and uncomfortable, which causes the body to further tighten. The central nervous system gets bombarded with information about the hypertonic tissues, prompting compensatory adaptation patterns to evolve that affect posture, gait, and breathing. Between the muscle hypertonicity and compensatory patterns–the joints are usually shifted out of their optimal position, leading to more rapid degradation, more pain, and more discomfort.
It can compromise our athletic performance, affect our mood, foster acidic environments in the body that cause pain sensations, degrade our sleep, and make us more susceptible to injury–causing more tension. Perhaps this is intuitive, but it bears repeating.
Compromised athletic performance
There’s a big difference between muscles that are toned and pliable versus muscles that are excessively tense or hypertonic. This is partly due to the brain’s reciprocal inhibition response, which signals for antagonist muscles to relax while agonist muscles are working. So, for example, if a cyclist has hypertonic quadriceps that are chronically contracted, then the brain signals to antagonist muscle groups—the gluteals and hamstrings in the back of the leg—to relax. This is a problem if the cyclist wants to stabilize, maximize pedaling efficiency, and recruit power during pedal lift. She will have a harder time because the glutes and hamstrings are neurologically inhibited—they won’t contract as well, and so she’ll be able to generate less power. What’s more, hypertonic muscles with active trigger points fatigue faster than normal muscles do, and they exhibit a decreased number of firing motor units and poor synchronization. This is the case for any athlete–yogis, dancers, and football players alike.
The emotional effects can also be profound. For years conventional wisdom held that a depressed person would gradually move into a slumped, inwardly-collapsed posture, as though the depression came first and then the physical effects slowly emerged. Now, though, researchers are recognizing that a slumped, inwardly-collapsed posture can actually trigger and exacerbate depression. “We tend to think the brain and body relationship goes one way. In fact, the passages go both ways,” says Erik Peper, a professor of health education at San Francisco State University “When you choose to put your body in a different mode, it’s harder to drop into depression.” Indeed, a connection between open body posture and mood has been supported by several psychological studies.
Stimulation of nociceptors
Chronic tension restricts the free flow of blood through the web of tiny capillaries inside muscle tissue. Reduced blood flow—ischemia—leads to the retention of metabolic waste (such as lactic acid, ADP, magnesium, reactive oxygen species, and inorganic phosphate), localized hypoxia, and/or edema. Sustained ischemia causes soft tissue to experience local energy crises, leading to the formation of trigger points and associated pain and discomfort. Pain is compounded when sustained reductions in blood flow cause hydrogen ions to accumulate and tissue pH to drop. The resulting acidity in the muscle’s intracellular fluids paired with the accumulation of hydrogen ions stimulates peripheral receptors (nerve endings) that communicate sensation of pain. Interestingly, in cases of chronic tension—these pain sensations may not be consciously experienced until the tissues are stimulated mechanically, at which point pain is felt clearly. Just because we aren’t conscious of it, however, doesn’t mean those peripheral receptors aren’t working overtime—constantly reminding the central nervous system over and over again that something is amiss. And how do fee when this is the case? Irritable, tired, and hungry.
Degradation in sleep quality
There remains much unchartered territory at the intersection of musculoskeletal studies and sleep research, but many people can attest from personal experience that a stiff, pained body doesn’t sleep as well as one that is balanced and at ease. Part of the reason may be related to bombardment of the central nervous system by peripheral receptors, as described above. R. C. Schafer writes, “Whether a person is awake or asleep, the brain is constantly bombarded by input from all skin and internal receptors. This barrage of incoming messages is examined, valued, and translated relative to a framework composed of instincts, experiences, and psychic conditioning.” It follows that tissue deprived of adequate blood flow (and which is therefore more acidic and likely to cause pain) might ping away at the brain all night–potentially degrading quality of sleep. This is important to consider if, for example, you are a person who doesn’t report acute pain but still experiences less than perfect sleep. Baseline myofascial tightness may play a larger role than you previously realized.
Perhaps the single most important (and underestimated) consequence of carrying a lot of tension is susceptibility to injury–and this is something that can affect bodybuilders and couch potatoes alike. If muscles are pulled taut and fascially adhered, if they can’t glide and contract smoothly, it is easier for them to incur tears and strains. Imagine taking a big, wide rubber band, and stretching it taut around a metal pole. If the tension is high enough, it won’t take much to puncture that band. Conversely, if there’s sufficient slack, the band will much more easily withstand physical demands. This is how it works with our musculoskeletal system too. Physiologically, this phenomenon can be attributed to hysteresis, in which collagen fibers and proteoglycans are rearranged to produce an altered structural pattern in response to hypertonicity. This type of tissue is more easily fatigued and damaged if strained.
Our tools can help.
We can’t eliminate all stress from your life, but there are plenty of things we can do to improve athletic performance, mood, and sleep–all the while reducing baseline tension accumulated from too much sitting, slouching, and stressing. Recall our prior discussion of the tension cycle. The beauty of soma system® is that you learn to use tools to break the cycle.
The Science (in a nutshell)
In your practice, you’ll use a variety of techniques to mindfully reduce restriction, dissolve adhesions, and reintroduce blood and nutrients to regions that are tense or in spasm. As your fascia becomes softer and more gel-like, waste buildup will be flushed from areas that were previously low on oxygen and blood flow. This will normalize local blood biochemistry, reducing the number of local energy crises and related trigger points. Peripheral receptors will be less active, and the central nervous system can relax. At this point, the body’s protective tightening response can settle, leading to improvements in sleep quality and mood.
A more balanced nervous system combined with a decrease in hypertonicity primes the body for excellent structural work! soma system® practitioners will learn to strengthen areas of their bodies that need to be stronger and elongate parts of their bodies that need to be longer. In other words, you will work with your unique compensatory patterns so that you experience fuller ranges of motion and less stress on your joints. Less joint stress equals less pain! Plus, soma system® techniques encourage practitioners to work through their full range of motion–improving proprioception and redefining what is considered “normal” resting posture and gait in the brain’s motor center.
What this means for you
If you are…
- Athletic or in a physically-demanding line of work: You may get a performance boost as a result of better-nourished muscles, improved proprioception, and more restful sleep.
- A health professional: You’ll learn to care for yourself after a long shift, and If it’s within your scope of practice, you can share relevant techniques with your clients and patients. If they want to know more, you’ll have access to materials on this website and links to published studies that affirm soma system®’s core concepts.
- A yogi or meditation practitioner: The mindfulness component of soma system® may support deeper and more subtle experiences in your yoga and/or meditation practice.
- Human: As your practice matures and your body strengthens, the deepest unconscious layers of muscle guarding will likely relent. Gains will show up in different parts of your life: maybe you’ll have more endurance, better posture, more flexibility, better respiratory function. You may sleep better and thus become more patient. Of course there’s no silver bullet; you’ll still be human, entirely capable of having good days and bad, headaches and fatigue, but soma system® will equip you with the tools needed to meet those challenges.