Chronic Muscle Tension Causes & Treatment

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  • 0:04 What Is Chronic Muscle…
  • 0:44 Common Causes
  • 2:20 Consequences
  • 2:57 Treatment
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be learning about the causes of chronic muscle tension. By the end of this lesson you'll understand both common causes and the consequences of chronic muscle tension. We'll also review some of the treatments for different types of muscle tension.

What Is Chronic Muscle Tension?

Let's say your friend Azhanne works in an office as a financial analyst. Since most of her work is online, she's usually hunched over her computer or paperwork all day. Each day she comes home, and her shoulders are tense and sore to the touch. She decides to mention it at her next doctor appointment. Her doctor diagnoses her with chronic muscle tension.

During chronic muscle tension, muscles remain contracted even after the muscle is done working. The result is sore, tight muscles. Usually, chronic muscle tension occurs in the back, shoulders, and neck, but can occur in other areas of the body as well. Muscle tension is extremely common, especially in people who work seated over a computer most of the day.

Common Causes

Although it might seem counterintuitive, since muscle tension is a physical problem, psychological stress is the main cause of chronic muscle tension. When a person is psychologically stressed, such as from consistent bad days at the office or a difficult relationship, their body naturally reacts by tensing up their muscles.

This is an old, evolutionary adaptation where stress meant the person would need to fight or flee the situation. Now, the stress doesn't usually come from a physical threat, but an emotional one. With today's chronic stress and pressure in the workplace and at home, the stress doesn't dissipate as it would in a natural 'fight or flight' situation. The stress goes on, so the muscle tension also goes on.

Stress not only causes the muscles to tense, but also constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the body. Muscles metabolize food and in the process release toxins created in the process. The toxins are carried away through the blood and lymphatic system and processed by the liver if there is limited blood flow. This is one reason it's important to stretch and drink lots of water after a hard workout. The buildup of those toxins can cause muscle soreness. During stress, the inadequate blood flow prevents the toxins from being removed, leading to increased pain in addition to the tension.

Muscle tension can also manifest as muscle knots, which are tight bundles of connective tissue where the muscle remains contracted. If you've ever felt that tight lump in your shoulder blades, or maybe your calf, this is a muscle knot. Knots can be caused by stress or overuse in exercise. Muscles are physically torn during exercise and need time to recover. With too much activity, the muscles don't relax properly, resulting in muscle tension and knots.


Although muscle tension generally doesn't cause many more problems than discomfort, there can be other consequences. Tension headaches are strong headaches that occur in response to overly contracted muscles in the neck and shoulders. The contraction pulls on muscles surrounding the skull, squeezing it and causing intense pain. Muscle tension can even be a trigger for migraines, intensely painful headaches that can result in temporary loss of vision and vomiting.

Not addressing muscle tension can also lead to pulled muscles or other injuries if the person continues to use them during exercise. It's important to treat the tense muscles and muscle knots before they become worse. Luckily, there are some effective treatments.


Muscle tension doesn't require surgery and many options include at-home treatment. Let's look at each:

Decreasing Stress: Since stress is a major cause of muscle tension, a logical course of action is to decrease stress. Doctors recommend exercise (that doesn't aggravate the area with tension), relaxation techniques such as meditation, and taking time for activities you enjoy, whether it be a long hot shower, time with friends, or reading a book. For more significant sources of stress, therapy or psychopharmacology with a medical professional can help promote self-reflection and decrease anxiety.

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