Hands under tension with string
We all relate to the words tightness, rigidity, strain, stress, anxiety and pressure when we think about muscular tension. The paradox of tension, however, is that we need it in order to exist. If muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia were not able to hold tension, we would not be able to move! But did you know that your brain controls the amount of tension in your body?

Good and bad tension

The primary motor cortex (M1) is one of the principal brain areas involved in motor function. M1 is located in the frontal lobe of the brain, along a bump called the precentral gyrus. The role of the primary motor cortex is to generate neural impulses that control the execution of movement. Signals from M1 cross the bodies midline to activate skeletal muscles on the opposite side of the body. The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body.

Primary Motor Cortex SomatotopicallyEvery part of the body is represented in the primary motor cortex, and these representations are arranged somatotopically. The foot is next to the leg which is next to the trunk which is next to the arm and the hand and so on. The amount of brain matter devoted to any particular body part represents the amount of control that the primary motor cortex has over that body part. A lot of cortical space is required to control the complex movements of the hand and fingers. These body parts have larger representations in M1 than the trunk or legs, whose muscle patterns are relatively simple. This drawing is a visual representation of this.

Can you force a muscle to relax?

We all tend to think that we should know how to relax and let go of tension. The truth is that learning how to let go of tension is a process of learning. Trying to force your body to relax is almost impossible – the harder you try, the less it works. That is why having too much tension is so complicated to sort out. There isn’t one simple off switch we can flick. A better way is to allow your muscles to turn off by teaching them not to send ‘tense’ messages except when they are truly needed. If you suffer from chronic pain your brain has long forgotten how to turn off those tense muscles.

What is muscle pain?

The exact mechanics of what happens as muscle fibres tighten into a spasm of pain are not totally clear, but mild tension can easily build into a knot of excruciating pain in a short time. There are several competing theories and no conclusive evidence for any one of them. Several may be true at once because there are multiple physiological routes to muscle spasm.

One of the better-documented assertions holds that when a muscle is tightened the tension slows blood flow. Normally, blood washes away the metabolic byproducts of activity, but if the muscle stays tense, it becomes oxygen-starved and metabolites, like lactic acid, build up. The pain receptors in the muscles are sensitive both to shortening of the fibres and to a buildup of metabolites. When these receptors detect such conditions, they send a message of pain to the brain.

Another theory holds that muscular tension is the product of poor lubrication between your body’s many different tissues. When continual tension or an awkward position causes a tendon, for example, to rub and press against a muscle, the resulting friction irritates the tissue.

Yet another cause of muscle spasm could be simply sitting still. Blood flow decreases and a condition known as anoxia (oxygen starvation) can set in, leading the muscle to spasm. The agony of a spasm is, paradoxically, your body’s attempt to care for itself.

How bodywork can help

Therapies which actively involve stimulating the nervous system, such as massage, can really help to address tension. They provide a means for the brain to let go of chronic tension and the body to let go of any patterns of holding it has developed. Focused, therapeutic touch is an incredibly powerful medium through which to develop more self-awareness. In doing so, the brain can effectively learn how to let go of unwanted muscular tension. By manipulating soft tissue we provide direct neurological stimulation which feeds into the nervous system and the brain. When we touch another person’s body, we are not physically getting rid of tension, but providing a stimulus which responded to. I always think of it in terms of making the brain aware that there’s something not quite right that we would like sorted out!

Your self-care toolbox is important

There are, of course, other ways to help to reduce muscular tension, including using heat and exercise. Using more than one modality is not only sensible if we want to keep tension at bay, it also provides us with a set of tools that we can use throughout our lives to keep our bodies in balance. Regular massage, learning how to do myofascial release and trigger point work using a tennis ball, using Epsom salts, learning how to breathe well and how to switch off are all important.

Next time you go for a massage take a moment to remember that your therapist isn’t physically taking the tension out of your body, but bringing awareness to what is present in order to allow your body to perform its own adjustments. If you have regular massage your brain will learn how to let go, and you will feel how chronic tension can be eased.

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