Muscle tension is a part of life. Even is you’re not sore from exercising, everyday activities like loading the laundry or picking up your toddler, or even just sitting at your desk for too many hours in a row can lead to a certain level of achiness.
“Muscles tighten up just from the repetitive stress of twisting and turning and bending day after day after day,” says chiropractor Jeffrey Klein, DC, founder of Broadway Chiropractic & Wellness Center in New York City. Releasing this tension regularly is an important part of making sure that your muscles can function optimally so that you can avoid pain and injury. But what’s the best the best way to go about this? How do you decide between a massage vs. stretch to address muscle aches?
The first thing you have to do is determine the source of your soreness, according to Dr. Klein. Is it being caused by a general tightness of your muscle or a specific knot or trigger point? “Because it’s two totally different things,” he says. While stretching is your best bet for tightness, a knot needs to be, well, kneaded.
How to tell if you’ve got general tightness
One way to determine if you’re dealing with muscle tightness and are in need of a good stretch is to look at yourself in a mirror, according to Dr. Klein. “You want your hips and shoulders to be level,” he says. If, for example, your right shoulder is lower than your left, it could be an indicator that the muscles on the right side of your back are tighter, and you need to spend some time stretching to elongate them. Imbalances like this can put more pressure on some muscles than others, which can lead to tension.
Another test that Dr. Klein recommends is to lie on your back with your legs out long. Try to lift one leg up toward the ceiling. “If you can’t bring your leg up to 90 degrees, then you know you have a loss range of motion in the hip,” he says. Stretching the hip and lower body muscles can help to restore mobility through that joint. Similarly, not being able to fold forward and touch your toes can be a sign of tight hamstrings.
Starting a daily stretch routine is a great way to minimize muscle tightness:
How to determine if you have a knot
Unlike general tightness throughout a muscle, trigger points are knots in specific areas along the muscle fibers. Like tightness, they too can lead to a lack of flexibility, but trigger points tend to feel more sore and tender because they develop when lack of blood flow leads to lactic acid build up.
“Because the muscle gets so tight, the blood flow doesn’t move through the muscle, so the blood isn’t pulling the lactic acid away from the cells, Dr. Klein says.
You can use your hands, a percussion device like a Theragun, massage ball, or foam roller to identify knots. You’ll know when you’ve found one—it will probably hurt.
To work it out yourself, hold pressure on a trigger point for 30 to 60 seconds. If that’s too painful, you can massage around the knot until it loosens up enough to massage over it.
Alternatively, Dr. Klein recommends booking an appointment with a pro who can really help you release muscle tension, especially in hard-to-reach places like your back. He’s also a big fan of foam rollers for the same reason. “They can help with both stretching and trigger point release,” he says. The best of both worlds.