Many people still believe that physical therapy is only needed for rehabilitation after injury, accidents, or surgery. In reality, almost everyone can benefit from physical therapy to prevent minor recurring aches and pains or subtle losses of flexibility from becoming debilitating health issues. Physical therapists can help because many of our aches and pains are caused by muscle imbalances. This is true whether we are couch potatoes, dedicated fitness enthusiasts or athletes.
What are Muscle Imbalances?
There are more than 600 individual skeletal muscles in the human body, providing strength, stability, and dexterity as well as our ability to speak and swallow. These muscles are designed to work together but our modern lifestyle, personal fitness regimes, and choice of athletic pursuits often cause us to strengthen some muscles while leaving others to languish and become weak. If this weakness persists over decades, the neural pathways that allow your mind to control your muscles may also weaken and will have to be reactivated during your therapy.
How Do Muscle Balances Occur?
We can unwittingly cause muscle imbalances by our lifestyle and fitness choices. Some of the biggest problems include:
- Strength Training Errors: Specific muscles, such as your biceps and triceps, are designed to work in opposition to each other. For example, if your exercise routine includes only biceps curls without triceps extensions, you will develop a muscle imbalance in this opposing pair.
- Inadequate Stretching: Many people develop tight muscles in their calves and hamstrings because they fail to stretch after taking up walking as a fitness regimen.
- Poor Posture when Performing Daily Activities: For example, excessive attention to our phones has given many of us a head-forward posture that causes muscle imbalances in the neck and upper torso.
How are Muscle Imbalances Detected?
A physical therapist will begin by observing your posture and gait. Then, by assessing the range of motion in your joints and your overall flexibility, he or she will have a clear picture of where your muscle imbalances are. The therapist can also feel tightness in your muscles and tendons. If necessary, the therapist will review any x-ray, MRI and/or ultrasound results to make sure that muscle/tendon injuries are not playing a role in your muscle imbalance.
How Can Muscle Imbalances Be Corrected?
The physical therapist will start you on a progressive course of treatment that is designed to rebalance your muscles by:
- Strengthening the weak muscles with exercises using stretch bands, weight machines, and free weights:
- On one side of your body to equalize function
- Within an opposing muscle group
- In your core to promote strength and stability throughout your body
- Stretching the tight muscles that have contracted at the expense of the stronger opposing muscles
- Giving you repetitive drills that will re-awaken dormant neural connections that are inhibiting your muscles from activating in the right sequence
- Applying specialized manual massage techniques such as myofascial release
- Ice, heat, and ultrasound treatments may also be used if inflammation or injury are causing your muscle imbalances
After Your Therapy
Before you are released from therapy, your PT will give you a home routine that you should continue indefinitely. If you discontinue this routine, your muscle imbalances are likely to recur. In addition, you will receive tips on developing better body awareness to combat poor sitting, standing and walking postures. By following your therapist’s instructions, you will have a better chance of preventing injuries.
If you have recurring minor aches and pains or loss of flexibility, contact us today to set up an initial evaluation with one of our physical therapists. Early treatment of muscle imbalances is the fastest way to correct them.