10 causes of muscle tension and how to release them

It's true, stress can hurt, very badly. A sudden onset or prolonged periods of stress can cause muscle tension and pain. 

For example, you may suffer from headaches caused by muscle tension in areas around the shoulders, neck and head.

But why does stress cause muscle pain and tension, and what can you do about it?

What are muscle strains?

This term refers to the condition in which the muscles of the body remain semi-contracted for an extended period. This phenomenon is often caused by the physiological effects of stress and can lead to episodes of back pain. But as you will see in this article, other factors may be involved.

According to David Munson, a certified rehabilitation therapist in occupational ergonomics, when stress levels are high, our brain sends a signal to the nerves to go into "protection mode" and tell the muscles to tense up and increase their strength. tone.

This can cause pain because when the muscles are tight, blood flow is reduced, causing lactic acid to build up in the muscles. It's like feeling pain the day after an intense workout. When a muscle is solicited and it contracts, these phenomena are normal and momentary. When the muscle relaxes, everything goes back to normal...

But if the muscles remain contracted all the time, including at rest, this process causes a decrease in oxygen and an accumulation of biochemical waste in the muscles, spasms and back pain.

Tension cases are usually treated with different techniques to relax the muscles, including exercise, massage, hydrotherapy and heat therapy.

But before talking about the solutions, here are the most common causes…

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Other articles on muscle relaxation and well-being

Before you read on, here are some other topics on this same theme:

You will find the complete list of articles on the site at this page.

10 causes of muscle pain or tension

upper back muscle tension

Muscle stress or tension can appear mainly for the following reasons:

  • Intense, unusual or prolonged physical exertion
  • muscle spasms
  • Dehydration
  • Stress
  • Bad posture

Other factors occasionally cause muscle stiffness such as: 

  • Taking certain medications
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Overweight
  • Bad nutrition
  • Cold or humid environment

Note : This article is not intended to address the symptoms associated with certain diseases. For example, if you experience very painful muscle tension, sudden or chronic, after an insect sting or bite (such as a tick), or your muscle is swollen and red, it is necessary to consult a specialist. 

Physical effort 

A common cause of muscle stiffness is physical activity. Especially if you're asking your muscles to do something harder, faster, or longer than usual. For example, if you start a new weight training program, increase the duration of your usual exercises, take heavy weights or increase muscle contraction to achieve muscle congestion (the famous pump effect). 

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What's going on in your muscles? 

The muscle fibers of the muscles used, which then work more intensely or longer, suffer microscopic damage, or micro-tears, resulting in stiffness or pain. This type of injury is called DOMS (delayed post-exercise muscle soreness) or more simply aches. 

These pains, which can be very intense, will last from 48 to 72 hours and disappear on their own. 


muscle spasms

The contraction defines a state of lasting and involuntary contraction of one or more muscles. It usually occurs in the context of a sporting activity and presents itself as a feeling of painful stiffness in a muscle.

The affected part of the muscle feels hard and painful on palpation and during movement, especially when resisted. A shock to a muscle resulting in a contusion can cause the same symptoms as a contracture.

Generally, muscle contractures last longer than cramps, which are temporary. They very often affect the calves in the context of sports. One of the causes can be related to the following point…


Whatever the reason for dehydration, its effect on muscles is undeniable. Water is essential for the proper functioning of all your organs and muscles.

How does good hydration influence muscular work? Here are 3 important roles:

  • Plays an essential role in the distribution of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chlorine and bicarbonate) which help regulate nerve and muscle function; 
  • Maintains blood circulation conducive to the proper functioning of muscles;
  • Allows the proper functioning of the intramuscular membranes (sarcolemmas) which activate the contraction and relaxation of the muscles.

To cope with a water deficiency, the body will alter certain functions impacting the distribution of electrolytes, blood flow and the functioning of the sarcolemma (membrane surrounding the muscle fibre).

This imbalance handicaps the muscles which will work with difficulty, or even be injured by activating themselves. Also, remember to hydrate yourself regularly during the day and particularly as part of regular physical activity.


The body reacts to danger by putting certain muscles on alert. The area of contracted muscles will depend on the type of danger. The arm to avoid a boiling pan or the legs against an aggressive dog, for example. 

This mechanism is there to prevent injury and pain. Once the danger has passed, the muscles relax.

Faced with stress, the body puts itself in the same position as in case of danger. Muscles tense. If this muscle tension is constant, it prevents the blood from circulating in the tense muscles and the waste products are not evacuated correctly. This is how pain arises. 

This stress-induced tension is often found in the shoulders, upper back, and neck, also leading to headaches. It then becomes a real vicious circle since these pains prevent you from resting properly and increase your stress level.

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Bad posture

lower back muscle stress

A bad position is always at the origin of a chronic pain on the long term. Unfortunately, anyone can have poor posture at work, on their couch, and even in bed. 

The back and hips are often the first to find themselves in a stressful situation from carrying heavy loads at work or from long hours spent in front of a computer.

Here are some very common bad positions:

  • Slumped in a chair or couch with no lumbar support
  • Standing position slightly leaning forward due to hyperlordosis
  • Flat back and shoulders forward
  • Habit of standing on one leg when standing (one hand on hip)
  • Neck leaning forward (often due to the constant use of his Smartphone)
  • Head tilted back (working on a computer with a screen that is too high)
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David Munson, the therapist cited above, points out that the physical stress caused in many work environments by holding a prolonged position without movement, by poor posture or by repetitive movements can cause stress-like problems. emotional.

Drug treatments 

If you are undergoing medical treatment and you experience muscle pain, take the time to read the list of side effects in the leaflet. 

In effect, certain medications are indicated as being able to cause muscle pain, such as statins, synthetic antithyroid drugs, antidepressants and certain antimalarials.

Seek medical advice if you experience these symptoms with your treatment. Your doctor can probably prescribe another more suitable one.

Sedentary lifestyle

There are several levels of sedentariness. 

According to ONAPS : A sedentary lifestyle is defined as a behavior during the waking period generating an energy expenditure close to that at rest (time spent sitting or lying down during the day, whether at work, in transport, during leisure activities, in front of a screen). 

  • Low sedentary lifestyle: less than 3h/day
  • Moderate sedentary lifestyle: 3 to 5 h/day
  • High sedentary lifestyle: more than 7h/day

If you have ever experienced a cast limb, you know that an immobilized muscle melts and atrophies. Then, the slightest effort is likely to generate pain or limitation of movement.

For an inactive muscle, we speak of muscle shortening. This condition can lead to the development of knots of muscle tissue. 

Those who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk suffer from muscle tension especially in the front of the hips, chest and front of the shoulders.


why i eat too much

From studies showed a link between increased BMI and increased musculoskeletal pain, particularly low back pain and lower limb pain.

The skeleton being overloaded, the joints suffer. They can decompose faster than normal, change shape, undergo friction, etc.

The mass of the body added to these transformations of the skeleton causes a person to make unnatural movements or to take positions that are traumatic for the muscles.

Often, being overweight promotes a sedentary lifestyle which, as specified in the previous point, can cause additional muscle tension. Another vicious circle...

Bad nutrition

In the section on dehydration, you read that water is essential for the distribution of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chlorine and bicarbonate) which help regulate nerve and muscle function. Muscles also need protein.

And now the 100 bullet question: What provides these electrolytes and proteins? 

You have won ! Food. Real foods of course, those that are good and healthy. For example, potassium is found in potatoes, apricots, bananas and lentils to name a few. 

A poor diet or a little varied diet is therefore responsible for deficiencies that do not allow the muscles to work properly, thus exposing them to injury.

Cold or humid environment

Whether it's because you tense up when you're cold, move less to stay warm under the duvet, or your body reacts to changing air pressure, your joints and muscles suffer.

No wonder small pains appear, especially if your body is subjected to this environment regularly or for long periods of time.

In addition, during cold periods, pain can occur during or after a sports session because you do not warm up enough.

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How to release muscle tension

The first thing to remember is that just because your muscles are too tight doesn't mean you have to stretch aggressively. Quite the contrary!

But it's a sign that you would benefit from changing your activities to lessen the threat to the nervous system, and there are simple ways to help your body cope with the impact of muscle stress.

This article can't cover all the solutions, but here are some effective techniques:

  • Move more and do a few small movements every hour for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Look for ergonomic solutions for your workstation or office
  • Take time to meditate (10-30 minutes before bedtime can improve sleep quality)
  • Follow a muscle-strengthening program (may reduce pain and tension)
  • Do gentle stretches to reduce tension (see some rules below)
  • Use a relaxation device adapted to your problem

NOTE : If you are new to bodybuilding, avoid carrying heavy loads until you have solved the problem of muscle tension.

A few rules about stretching

stretching for muscle tension

As you have read previously, all forms of aggressive stretching are to be avoided. Do not think that this kind of movement is without risk of injury, quite the contrary. First try to improve the mobility of the muscles concerned.

Follow these guidelines if you want to gently stretch tight muscles:

  • Warm-up: Do 3 to 5 minutes of gentle rhythmic movements, such as walking or skipping. This increases blood circulation and body temperature.
  • Stretch only to the point of tension. You should feel the muscle relax and never feel pain when you stretch it.
  • Hold the stretch in a comfortable position. The feeling of tension should ease as you hold the stretch.
  • Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds.
  • Feel the stretch of the muscle. If the tension increases as you tense the muscle, you are overdoing it. Reduce the tension to a more comfortable level.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally without holding your breath.

NOTE : Consult your primary care physician before beginning any exercise program if you have recently had any physical, musculoskeletal, or other medical history related to your muscle tension problem.

Release muscle tension – Conclusion

As you will have understood, these tensions are linked to nervous or muscular stress. You must therefore be patient to solve the problem at the source.

If the cause is primarily related to nervous stress, look for anything that can help reduce that stress, whether it's taking time to reflect on your day, having a good time with people you love, etc.

Gradually implement solutions to improve your posture through muscle strengthening. Start with small, easy exercises on a floor mat for example. You will receive a guide with 25 exercises if you subscribe to this blog for free.

Leave a message in the comments area below to ask your questions or share your experience. THANK YOU !

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