March 30, 2023

Tight vs. Taut Muscles

When seeking advice for muscle or joint pain, patients are often told that they have tight muscles. An explanation they may receive is that tight muscles alone cause pain, or these tight muscles alter the way a joint functions and thus causes pain. Now, there is some validity to this explanation and people may experience relief of pain with interventions aimed at “loosening” a tight muscle. This may include stretching, massage, foam rolling, dry needling, etc. However, this may not always be the case and a patient may not see significant improvements in their symptoms with the above mentioned treatments. If this is the case, the supposedly tight muscle in question may actually be taut. This can be challenging to differentiate at times because tight and taut muscles present with very similar symptoms, but require different treatments. I will explain the difference below.


Tight muscles:

When a muscle is “tight” it is considered to be overactive, short, or lacking flexibility. Essentially, the muscle is limited in its ability to lengthen or stretch. This can be caused by a variety of reasons, but often responds well to massage, foam rolling and stretching. These interventions are aimed at decreasing the resting activity of a muscle and improving the physiological ability of a muscle to stretch and lengthen. 


Taut muscles:

A muscle is taut when it is lengthened to its maximum ability. Just like pulling a rope in opposite directions from both ends, the rope becomes taut. When this occurs with a muscle, we experience a sensation of tightness and maybe pain, however, stretching in this scenario will not relieve the tension we experience because we are only adding more tension to the muscle. Oftentimes, a taut muscle occurs due to altered postures, weakness of the taut muscle, or dysfunction of other muscles that work in conjunction with that body region. So the treatment should focus on addressing changes in posture, strengthening weak muscles, and improving overall function of the body region.


So in conclusion, if you have tried stretching, foam rolling, and massaging a muscle that feels tight, but have not had success in reducing your symptoms, then try strengthening that area instead. You may want to consider visiting your Physical Therapist, who can assess the reason behind your symptoms and provide you with an individualized and appropriate treatment plan to get you out of pain.


Dan Schloss, PT, DPT

Brookline/Allston Clinic