What is a muscle imbalance?
To properly understand what is meant by muscle imbalance, it is essential to understand the fine balance in which our bodies operate. Different types of tissue have different roles. Some tissues have the ability to change their length and guide movement. Muscles, for example, will contract and relax to change their length to alter the position of other tissues, usually bone. Because of this function, they are called active tissue restraints. We also have structures that are set in their length which include ligaments, joint capsules and fascia. These are called passive tissue restraints.
When all the types of tissues are working as desired around a moving segment, ie. a joint, there is balance. However, when one tissue becomes dominant this can affect the balance leading to problems in that area. These issues typically arise in areas where there is the least amount of passive tissue restraints and greater reliance on active tissue restraints. Examples of these areas are the most mobile joints such as the shoulder and hip joints, and the spine.
How severe are muscle imbalances?
Muscle imbalances are commonly seen in varying degrees. Some are never felt by the individual. Others can create a range of symptoms including pain, weakness, soreness and tightness. Often we see that the more demanding an activity that someone undertakes, the more likely an imbalance starts causing symptoms. For example, someone swimming a few strokes may find they have no pain in their shoulder from an imbalance in that area. However, if they attempted to swim 3km this imbalance may create tightness and weakness. Demanding activities that may bring about these issues include running, cycling, swimming, lifting weights, as well as sitting and standing for periods of time. These last two examples are particularly relevant to the office worker who experiences neck or back pain. Therefore, muscle imbalance issues are not sinister for some people, but may play a large part in developing altered or restricted function in others who do more exercise or spend long hours in one position. This in turn can greatly affect an individual’s quality of life.
How does a muscle imbalance develop?
A muscle imbalance or asymmetry can develop due to:
– Positional requirements of an activity e.g sitting or standing for an extended period of time
– Repetitive movements, tasks, activities or exercises
– Hand dominance e.g writing or hitting a ball
– Leg dominance e.g what foot you prefer to kick a ball
Some of these may be unavoidable, but there are often ways to help someone become aware of times where an imbalance may develop. This involves improving their body awareness and technique with an activity.
What is the long-term effect?
When joints and structures in the body are loaded and stressed for short durations or with light loads, the body can often repair any damage. However, prolonged stress or high loads can create changes within the body that become permanent. Some of the common issues that muscle imbalances can lead to include: tendon stress/damage, joint damage including joint cartilage wear, muscle tears, joint instability, joint impingement, and many more.
Imbalances can affect all types of people from athletes, to children and the elderly. It can cause a range of responses including decreased performance in the athletic population, to joint soreness in the elderly. An individual may not notice an imbalance straight away; it may take an extended period of time to feel the effects of it due to increased usage over time. However, the ideal situation is that this imbalance is corrected to reduce the likelihood that the stress on the tissue leads to a long term issue.
How is a muscular imbalance identified?
Symptoms that arise after activity or prolonged positions such as tightness, soreness, weakness or pain are all possible signs you have an imbalance. This may be something that has just recently arisen, or you may have noticed it for a long period of time. The nature of your muscular imbalance will determine the type of remedy required to return to the desired equilibrium. This may include stretches, strengthening exercises, postural correction, changes to technique or all of the above. At Malvern Physiotherapy Clinic we can assess your needs and provide an individualised program to assist you in your recovery.
Written by Yannick Chani