How to ease muscle tension when you can't get a massage
Minimize muscle soreness with stretching, ergonomics, and movement.
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We all know the feeling: that crick in your neck, the tension in your shoulders, or that danged knot in your back. If you’ve been experiencing these sensations more than usual recently, you’re not alone—Americans have seen an uptick in stress this spring, coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Gallup poll. Short-term reactions to stress, like sweaty palms, will fade once a stressor has passed. But muscle tension, another part of the natural human stress response that is intended to guard us from injury and pain, can last longer, especially if stress becomes chronic.
When you’re stressed for a prolonged period, muscle tension can drag out and take a toll on other parts of your life. It can even “result in disturbed sleep patterns,” says Lalatendu Acharya, an assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Indiana Kokomo. This can create a cycle where stress feeds tension, tension worsens sleep, and poor sleep quality circles back to an increase in overall stress. Fortunately, there are easy at-home actions you can take to help ease muscle tension from stress.
Why does stress make you tight?
The connection between mental stress and long-term muscle tension is complex. The stress response causes your body to release a glut of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones boost your energy and increase the availability of sugar in the bloodstream, so you can get moving if you’re in danger. You’ve probably heard of this response before: fight or flight.
For a short period, the hormones and additional energy stores coursing through your bloodstream can be helpful, it's an evolutionary mechanism, after all. "We all welcome a [certain] level of stress to function efficiently, but increased levels and chronic stress leads to harmful effects," Acharya says.
When you experience chronic stress, your body is “in a more or less constant state of guardedness,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). This can manifest physically: Ongoing tension in the shoulders and neck from stress can even trigger migraines.
Feeling tense or sore can be caused by pushing your muscles to their limit during exercise, or following long periods of inactivity, like sitting in your home office, or workplace. As always, soreness from stress is an individual experience. Fortunately, you don’t need to visit a doctor to know which muscles you should target. Think about the places where you tend to carry stress or often feel tense. The body usually tells you what it needs, says Becky Langton, an American College of Sports Medicine certified exercise physiologist, and instructor in Health and Fitness Science at Wake Technical Community College.
Which muscles should I watch out for?
If you’re not sure, there are certain muscles and muscle groups that are particularly prone to stiffness or soreness, due to extended periods of sitting, at home and in regular office environments. Of course, all this can be worsened by ongoing stress, but even basic stretches offer a quick fix.
Hip flexors, a group of muscles toward the front of the hip that help with motions like flexing your knee and leg up toward your body, tend to get tight from sitting too much, Langton says. Your hips are flexed while you sit, which shortens these muscles. To counteract this shortening, it’s a good idea to do exercises and movements that stretch them out—literally. Simple lunges are one active stretch you can try. If you’d rather opt for a static stretch to target the area, simply stand straight on one leg, and bend one knee toward your butt. Grab your foot with your corresponding arm (so if you’re stretching your right side, use your right arm and right leg), and hold for a minute.
Ultimately, you should aim to “move your body in the way it needs to be moved,” Langton says. If you feel like certain muscles need stretching more than others, listen to your body’s signals and prioritize those muscles.
Will movement help reduce tension?
Sitting too much is bad for you, and the longer you sit, the worse off you are. Sitting for more than eight hours a day has morbidity effects similar to obesity and smoking.
Our bodies just aren’t built for a sedentary lifestyle, and while short stints aren’t a problem, staying seated all day while working in your home or at the office, has consequences. Sitting with your body bent at the hips and knees can make it difficult for blood to properly circulate. This causes blood to pool in our lower legs, says Langton.
Sometimes the simplest solution is best. We were built to move, and luckily that’s all it takes to improve circulation and lessen blood pooling, Langton says.
Movement to help with muscle tension and stiffness from sitting can take multiple forms. On a very basic level, it’s important to move about every 30 to 45 minutes, Langton says. If you can’t move that frequently, at least get up once every hour. On your breaks, you can try dynamic stretches, which emphasize continued movement rather than stretching a muscle to the end of its range, or even jogging in place, she says.
Exercising throughout the week can also help, says Ryan Balmes, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. The hormones that are released by stress responses, like cortisol and adrenaline, can decrease with physical activity and exercise, as well as just spending time outside, or listening to calming natural sounds. If you need something to keep you on track with incorporating movement and exercise into your day-to-day, check out fitness apps or wearable trackers, which often have customizable settings for movement reminders. The Fitbit Versa, for example, reminds you to move every hour, if you don’t hit a certain number of steps. (Plus, if you find consistent reminders annoying, you can always change the settings.)
Can your at-home work setup minimize tension?
“Ergonomics” refers to the study of people in their work environment, and the design of a space to make it comfortable for an individual. But the term is broadly used to describe best practices for our body that reduce soreness and increase comfort, and our overall health on an individual basis.
At home work set-ups are often less ergonomic than our usual office environment, Langton says. Most homes are not designed for work (though office spaces can still leave something to be desired on the ergonomic front). Nonetheless, at your workplace you may have a comfortable chair that provides sufficient lumbar support, whereas at home you might just work at the dining room table, or even on the couch.
Spotting bad ergonomics can be a challenge. Fortunately, UCLA Health offers a simple list of checks you can do to see if how you’re sitting is ergonomic. For example, check that you’re sitting with your upper arms at your sides, and your elbows bent so your forearms are resting on the table.
Improving your ergonomics will make you more comfortable throughout the day and can decrease muscle discomfort. Even being mindful of slouching, and working to sit straight, can reduce muscle tension in your back.
What else can I do about muscle tension?
Still feeling wound up? There are other options to help relieve tension, even outside of work hours and incorporating movement into your day to day.
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is one technique that has proven effective in addressing stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and related issues, Acharya says. PMR is just tensing a certain group of muscles, like your neck, as you inhale, and relaxing them as you exhale. You work through the entire body in this manner, which causes relaxation. The University of Michigan Health System offers a thorough and handy guide on how to practice progressive muscle relaxation, including details on which muscle groups to tense and target, and how to do it. Research suggests completing six PMR sessions per week when you start out, Acharya says. It's an easy practice that can even be incorporated into your weekly fitness routine, or nightly wind-downs before bed.
Self massage is a simple and cheap solution. In fact, in some cases you don’t need any equipment. You can even look for a guided video on Youtube and follow along, Langton suggests. Other resources available online can be helpful for muscle tension release. In addition to Youtube tutorials, there are apps for iOS and Android specifically designed to promote relaxation, Acharya says. Giving blanket recommendations for what to try is almost impossible, as it varies depending on personal needs and preferences. If you turn to Youtube or other digital platforms and resources for guidance, be careful to select content and sources that are vetted, or backed, by clinical professionals or research experts, Acharya says.
Foam rolling, which is a “self-myofascial release” technique, helps on multiple fronts, including releasing tension, increasing blood-flow, and even limiting stiffness. The technique is a great option for some people, especially given that foam rollers are affordable. Our favorite, the LuxFit Premium Foam Roller, is just under $25—and less if you opt for a shorter length. It’s made from a firm foam that is dense enough to provide release and pressure, without it being so hard it’s painful.
Using a foam roller regularly is the best way to see results, and rolling out muscles before bed could help decrease tension and stress before you try to doze off. That said, foam rolling tends to provide temporary relief, rather than serving as a permanent solution to tension, Langton says. If you give it a try, but still face consistent pain or tightness, consider consulting an expert.
You can also try hot and cold treatments, if you find them soothing, for short-term relief, Balmes says. However these treatments can exacerbate certain conditions, he notes, so if you’re unsure consult a professional.
Massage guns are another option, though Langton says they aren’t supported as a relaxation technique by research. Rather, if they’re something that works for you, then go for it. We’ve tried a handful of massage guns with different features at different price points. We like the Sportneer Deep Tissue Muscle Massager if you have a tighter budget, and want a massage tool with multiple power levels.
General self care is also important as you try to manage stress levels on a regular basis. Even small actions, like improving your sleep and eating well throughout the day can decrease stress levels, which will also help your muscles relax.
If you think bringing a sense of luxury into your home will help you relax, try giving yourself an at home manicure, or indulging in one of our favorite foot spas. The Conair Foot Spa, which is just under $25 and features vibration massage, is our favorite budget option.
If all else fails, and you still feel tense, consult a physical therapist, Balmes says. “A [PT] can evaluate you and determine the cause of those symptoms, and create a personalized treatment plan to help you feel better,” he says.
Muscle tension isn’t a one size fits all phenomenon. Fortunately, you can work to identify your own needs and what techniques and approaches are best for you when you want to alleviate tension. Every expert interviewed for this piece emphasized the importance of finding what works for you, whether that’s a massage gun, Youtube tutorial, or even a plain old ice pack at the end of the day. So give yourself a rest—just not one that involves sitting for more than 45 minutes at a time.
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