May 2014 17

Hypertonic muscles

By: Dave Wheeler

We all suffer from tense muscles from time to time: we’ll feel tension in our shoulders, or an ache in our lower back.

But what do we mean by “tense”?


Muscle contraction and shortening

Muscles contract (become shorter) when the central nervous system sends signals to a particular muscle ordering it to shorten. If the brain wants the elbow to flex then a message is sent to the biceps muscle, telling it contract.


Muscle contraction from a relaxed state


It’s the contraction of muscle that causes movement. Whether it’s walking, running, jumping or doing bicep curls, muscle contraction is a good thing.

Like most things in life, though, you really can have too much of a good thing.

Imagine the child who walks to school every morning with a backpack on her right shoulder. To stop the satchel strap being pulled off her shoulder due to the weight of the books inside, she raises that shoulder just a little bit. As she grows, she starts carrying a handbag instead of a backpack, still on her right shoulder, which is still raised a little to stop it slipping off. As she becomes older, the handbag becomes bigger & heavier and her shoulder is kept raised a little bit more to stop the bag slipping off.


pic courtesy of Ambro @


In this case, the muscles are kept in a shortened (that is, contracted) position habitually over a long period of time. The muscles along the top of that shoulder get used to being held in a contracted state and soon the central nervous system starts to recognise this new position as “normal”, even when there’s no bag on the shoulder.

So the new “normal” is actually a state of permanent contraction; the muscle fibres never relax fully. They’re under tension the whole time. Muscles that are held in tension all the time become fatigued and can cause muscle ache.


Muscle contraction and hypertonicity

Take another example.

Imagine a 40 year old man who takes up running and enters for the London Marathon. He takes his training seriously and over a period of 12 months follows a gruelling schedule to make sure he can complete the event.


pic courtesy of vectorlie @


As any runner will tell you, their sport make for tight calf muscles.

With each step, the push off (that point when the heel leaves the ground and the toes propel you forward) needs the calf muscles to contract powerfully. The continued forceful contraction of the same calf muscles over and over again with each step, for several miles several days a week for several months means that the calves really bulk up. In fact, they can become overused.

When muscles get overused they become hypertonic: in other words “hyper-toned.” Whether it’s calves, biceps, upper traps or any other muscle, we often want to look defined, but if we overdo it, they become “over-toned”, in other words, hypertonic.

Hypertonic muscles are in a permanent state of mild contraction - they never relax. Just like the first example with the woman who has a bag on her shoulder a lot of the time, the person who repeats any action over and over will find that those muscles become “set” in a new position: slightly shortened and tense.

Once again, hypertonic muscle never completely relaxes - it’s switched on in a state of contraction the whole time. Muscle fatigue and muscle ache aren’t far behind


Massage and hypertonic muscles

Several different techniques are needed to treat hypertonic muscles:

  • Massage (especially deep tissue massage)
  • Remedial stretching - especially muscle energy technique (or MET)
  • Specialised remedial treatments like positional release technique (or PRT)
  • Advice on lifestyle and postural issues that will help stop the problem recurring, or at the very least from getting worse.

(I’ll discuss each of these techniques in detail in later blog posts.)

Massage on it’s own will make you feel better for a couple of days, but won’t actually change the “normal” switched-on setting of the problem muscle, so the ache will return. To break the cycle that causes hypertonic muscle you really need the full works of remedial massage therapy.

As ever, if you think I can help, give me a call.