As people get older, they start to complain more about pain in their muscles and joints. They seem to get a little stiffer with age, and everyday activities such as bending over for the morning paper can make them shiver.
Such pain can hold on so badly that they are sure to start deep within their bones. But the real cause of stiffness and pain, according to research at Johns Hopkins Medical School, is not in the joints or bones, but in the muscles and connective tissues that move the joints.
The frictional resistance generated by the two rubbing surfaces of bones in the joints is negligible, even in joints damaged by arthritis.
Flexibility is the medical term used to describe the range of motion of a joint, from full movement in one direction to full movement in the other. The greater the range of motion, the more flexible the joint.
If you bend forward with the hips and touch your toes with your fingertips, you will have good flexibility or range of motion of the hip joints. But can you bend over easily with minimal effort of energy and strength? The effort required to flex a joint is just as important as the range of motion.
Several factors limit flexibility and range of motion in different joints and muscles. In the elbow and knee, the bony structure itself sets a clear limit. In other joints, such as the ankle, hip, and back, the soft tissues – muscles and connective tissue – limit the range of motion.
The problem of rigid joints and muscles is similar to the difficulty of opening and closing a gate due to a rarely used and rusty hinge that has become stiff.
So, if people don’t regularly move their muscles and joints through their full range of motion, they lose some of their potential. That’s why when these people will try to move a joint after a long period of inactivity, they feel pain, and that discourages further use.
What happens next is that when left unused for extended periods of time, the muscles shorten and cause spasms and cramps that can be irritating and extremely painful. The immobilization of muscles, as researchers have shown in laboratory animals, causes biochemical changes in the tissue.
However, other factors cause muscle pain. Here are some of them:
- Too much exercise
Have you always believed in the saying, “No pain, no gain?” If you do, it is not surprising if you have already experienced muscle pain.
The problem with most people is that they exercise too much and think this is the fastest and surest way to lose weight. Until they are in pain, they tend to ignore their muscles and connective tissue, even though they are what literally holds the body together.
- Aging and inactivity
Connective tissue binds muscle to bone through tendons, binds bone to bone through ligaments, and covers and unites muscles with sheaths called fascia. With age, the tendons, ligaments and fascia become less elastic. The tendons, with their densely packed fibers, are the most difficult to stretch. The easiest are the fascia. But if they are not stretched to improve joint mobility, the fascia shorten, putting unnecessary pressure on the nerve pathways in the muscle fascia. Many aches and pains are the result of nerve impulses traveling along these pressurized pathways.
Sore muscles or muscle pain can be excruciating as a result of the body’s response to cramps or pain. In this response, called the splint reflex, the body automatically immobilizes a painful muscle by causing it to contract. For example, a sore muscle can cause a vicious cycle of pain.
First, an unused muscle becomes painful from exercise or from being held in an unusual position. The body then responds with the splint reflex, shortening the connective tissue around the muscle. This causes more pain and eventually the whole area hurts. One of the most common sites for this problem is the lower back.
In the University of Southern California physiology lab, some people have gone out to learn more about this pain cycle.
Using a device, they measured electrical activity in the muscles. The researchers knew that normal, well-relaxed muscles do not cause electrical activity, while muscles that are not fully relaxed show significant activity.
In one experiment, the researchers measured these electrical signals in the muscles of individuals with athletic injuries, first with the muscle immobilized and then, after the muscle was stretched.
In almost all cases, exercises that stretched or extended the muscle reduced electrical activity and all or part relieved pain.
These experiments led to the ‘spasm theory’, an explanation for the development and persistence of muscle pain in the absence of an obvious cause, such as traumatic injury.
According to this theory, a muscle that is overloaded or used in a strange position becomes fatigued and therefore muscle pain.
Therefore, it is extremely important to know the limitations and capacity of the muscles to avoid muscle pain. This shows that there is no truth in the saying, “No pain, no gain.” The most important thing is how people keep fit by exercising regularly at a normal range, then seldom once, but following a tight routine.