Are you someone that holds your abdomen? A butt gripper? A shoulder tenser? It is important to note when learning about muscle guarding, that overusing a muscle is just as detrimental as under using a muscle. Muscle guarding is psychological tensing that we do automatically that can be damaging to our bodies.
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When the brain senses bony instability or tissue damage, another automatic response is made to the degree of the threat and the appropriate action our bodies’ need to take. Another term for a different type muscle guarding is “protective spasm.”
The protective spasm portion of muscle guarding is the brain’s reflex attempt to prevent further injury to soft tissues. By splinting the area with a spasm, the muscle “locks” which reduces painful joint movements. In cases of lower back pain and sciatica, these defenses can send sharp warnings to the brain when we move unexpectedly.
Some examples of muscle guarding are flexing your abdomen all day believing that is building tone, anxiety induced shoulder tensing, and constant clenching of your pelvic floor. These are all habits that are done reflexively once you train your body to do so. It becomes natural to your body, when it isn’t natural at all.
If you activate a muscle even 60% your body shuts it down. This means that if you are tensing your arm more than 60%, your body shuts down blood flow to that limb. This results in your arm not getting proper amounts of oxygen and then it can’t eliminate waste.
Over time, with continual muscle guarding, you begin to develop pain, trigger points, and decreases to the strength in the muscles you “guard.” Completely contracting and relaxing your muscles are essential to building strength.
Retraining your body to release and relax the parts of your body you hold is essential to changing muscle tensions. When a person’s body is excessively muscle guarding, they experience soreness, tenderness, and pain around the affected area as well as tension around tendons.
The most common consequence of muscle guarding is muscle fatigue, of the main tensing muscle and even those supporting this muscle that are overcompensating. Especially in patients that have sciatica, you may feel these effects due to the other parts of your body overcompensating for the pain around your sciatic nerve.
Relaxation and release are necessary to recovering and retraining the guarded muscles. Such a release can be administered through a chiropractor, massage therapy, acupuncture, or many other home states.