The function of muscle tone is primarily two-fold: to stabilize the joints both statically and dynamically and to circulate fluids through the body’s tissues, functioning as the ‘return heart’.
‘Statically’ refers to stabilizing the joints with the body at rest: sleeping, sitting, where levels of muscle tone required to stabilize the joints would be relatively low. ‘Dynamically’ refers to stabilizing the joints with the body active: walking, running, dancing, where levels of muscle tone required to stabilize the joints would be relatively high. The main point here is that there will always be a required tone to keep the joints stabile; without that required tone joints would be vulnerable to dislocation, since the joint capsules and the ligaments surrounding them are not designed to support the joints by themselves. They are designed to support the joints with muscle tone.
Here we have the definition of ‘hypertonicity’: any tonal value in excess of the muscle tone required to keep the body’s joints stabile during rest or activity would be a hypertonicity.
The Major Problematic Health Effects of Hypertonicity
Chronic hypertonicity creates serious health problems. The main issues are:
- Excess pressure on the associated joints
- Decreased interstitial space
- Increased pressure on arteries, veins, lymphatic vessels, and capillary beds
- Increased pressure on interstitial space
- Increased energy demands of hypertoned muscles
- Decreased ability to remove toxins from interstitial space
- Decreased ability to flow waste through veins and lymphatic vessels routing through hypertoned muscles
[See the LaFrano Massage Dynamics article Viability of the Interstitial Space for a discussion of the effects other than the joints.]
The ‘Work’ That Hypertonicity Does
Hypertonicity is, by definition, too much tone. The discussion above defines what too much tone is. A hypertoned muscle is working too hard – it is doing more work than is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. This leads to the very important question: what is the extra work that hypertonicity is doing? What is being accomplished by that extra work?
First, let’s look at what extra work it is not doing. Whatever task is going on, hypertonicity is not making it happen any faster, nor more efficiently. If I’m washing dishes, and I’m hypertonic in my neck and shoulders, I don’t wash the dishes any faster. I probably would do it slower because I’m in some degree of discomfort or pain. Tight muscles will never make me more efficient; quite the opposite, my movements will be less fluid.
Hypertoned muscles will be distributed more than less all around the joint or joints they cross to minimize distortion of posture. They will certainly distort the posture, but the body’s homeostatic balancing reflexes will seek to minimize it. The work that hypertonic muscles do is compress the joints they cross, as well as any structures within the lines of force they create. This effect must be thoroughly considered and appreciated by bodyworkers, as well as its ramifications.
We know that when fibroblasts, the cells of connective tissue proper, are subjected to pressure they produce more collagen fibers to support that pressure. If the increased pressure is accompanied by less movement, as is usually the case with hypertonicity, they will produce less ground substance. [For a more full description of this, see the LaFrano Massage Dynamics article the Three Main Properties of Connective Tissue] One can see that the consequence of this scenario is loss of range of motion.
That is not the end of it; rather, the beginning. As collagen fibers build up in the joint, the joint becomes thicker and denser. If this progresses, movement will at some point cause pain and then inflammation, eventually morphing into a condition called osteoarthritis. It should become apparent that this is not a disease: it is the unfortunate result of a solution, of the body doing what it has to do given the circumstances it has to operate under. Osteoarthritis is one of the results of the work that hypertonicity does.
If the hypertonic muscles put pressure on a visceral organ, the effect will be to congest that organ by inhibiting circulation within the organ, and it’s function will be negatively affected. Impaired circulation in any structure is the genesis of disease. [Again see Viability of the Interstitial Space]
The solution is straightforward – relieve the muscles of their hypertonicity. If the pressure is relieved and movement reintroduced, the body will, over time, deconstruct the fibrous restrictions in the joint or joints. Every client situation will be unique, and the massage approach that will be successful will also be unique to that client. The time frame to achieve this will also differ. There are plenty of variables including how long the hypertonicity has been there, the age, diet, and fitness of the client to name obvious and common ones. Effective bodywork will always be guided by the client’s response, and will include the client’s body-wide tensegrity organization – no hypertonicity exists as a singular phenomenon. Given that, the situation will always be correctable to some degree, and in many cases completely correctable.