Tension - causes, symptoms and treatment

Tension - causes, symptoms and treatment

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When the muscles are tense

Muscles in the neck and shoulders often tense up. The painful tension arises when we strain our muscles too much, for example through a certain posture over a longer period of time.

How do muscles work?

We move with our muscles and keep the body upright. We control some of them consciously - for example on the limbs, in the face and upper body. The muscles of the internal organs, on the other hand, cannot be controlled arbitrarily - for good reason. If we forgot to contract and relax the heart muscle, we would have heart problems in a few minutes. It would also simply not be possible to voluntarily control the organ muscles that are necessary for blood circulation, metabolism, sexual functions and digestion.

The fine structure of the muscles consists of actin and myosin, which work against each other. When a muscle contracts, the opposing structures push into each other, the muscle now shortens and becomes thicker. When the muscle relaxes, actin and myosin move apart.

The central nervous system

Our central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord ensures that the muscles relax or contract. Nerves transmit the signals from the central nervous system to the muscles. These signals are electrical impulses that put the respective muscle into a basic tension. The tension of the muscles changes with the rhythm of the nerve signals.

Causes of tight muscles

The causes of muscle tension can vary depending on the muscle. With a tense neck, it is often due to an inflexible position over a long period of time, for example by working on the laptop. If we are wrong in our sleep, this also leads to muscle tension.

Psychological causes

The muscles often tense up due to psychological stress. Anxiety and stress are conditions that evolve in response to danger. They affect brain signals as well as pain or incorrect posture. With strong fear and great stress, the muscles tense. When we feel safe, relax.

When we are mentally tense, it corresponds to the reaction to a threat, for example by a prey like our ancestors experienced. To escape this threat, the brain prepares the body for a performance mode and increases the tension in the muscles. But muscle tension continues even if we do not react physically, as we would have done in our hunter-gatherer past. Due to the tension, the muscle tissue is supplied with less blood, the products of the metabolism do not drain off and this depresses the pain receptors: it hurts.

Injuries and pain

Pain is not just a result of muscle tension, it can also be the cause. When we feel pain, the muscles in the corresponding part of the body automatically contract and protect the body from further pain and injury. This reaction is not optimal - like much in evolution. This is how the muscles on the spine react with blockages to complaints in the back. The muscles contract and we reflexively adopt a posture to protect the painful part of the body. But this gentle posture causes other muscles to contract, and so the tension pains expand.

Typical causes of tight muscles

The number one cause of muscle tension in people today is too little exercise, be it by working on the computer, by long journeys by car or by television. Muscle tension is guaranteed even when there is a lack of exercise as a result of bedriddenness in old and sick people. Lack of exercise is often accompanied by a one-sided burden when we sit in a desk chair or carry heavy bags in our hands. The less the entire muscular system is trained, the faster the muscles tense.

The wrong mattress

A wrong mattress in bed is often the cause of muscle tension. If the mattress is too soft, the muscles on the body tighten permanently so that we can lie comfortably. A mattress that is too hard can also lead to tension because it forces the body into a certain position. It's the same problem as working in front of the curved back screen.

Sleeping on the wrong mattress can lead to long-term discomfort. After all, we sleep a third of our time. If we now put the body in a faulty position during this entire phase, it will inevitably overload the muscles. The muscles no longer get enough oxygen and harden. With an ergonomic mattress that is adapted to the body, we can avoid these problems.

The right mattress

With a good mattress, you can distribute your body weight evenly on the surface. So the weight in the side position may not be exclusively on the shoulder and hip. Integrated lying areas support and relieve the body.

The wrong position

When you sleep on your stomach, they overload the neck; when you sleep on the bent forearm, you overload your shoulders.

Gnashing of teeth

People who clench their teeth don't just rub them and damage their dentures. They also ensure that the rows of teeth no longer fit together and that the temporomandibular joint works in an inclined position. The jaw muscles tighten. This is where special bite splints made by specialists come in.

A civilization problem

Muscle tension developed in evolution from the “hit or run” reflex in the face of danger, when hunting or confronting animals. The rapid movement followed the muscle tension. Then they relaxed again. If this fighting or fleeing ceases to exist, the tension remains. Sitting at a desk does not correspond to the evolutionary functions of our body. Therefore, we should take breaks at work, for example moving up and down the stairs, taking a train station on foot or doing gymnastics in the office.


A typical symptom of muscle tension is a headache. There is even a term for this: tension headache. Here the tension can either be the cause or the accompanying symptom. For example, stress often triggers tension in the neck muscles and headache at the same time.

Tense muscles have points that are particularly sensitive to stimuli. The pain radiates from these into the surroundings. The pain during tension is dull or pulling. For example, the pain runs from tense muscles in the neck area over the shoulders to the middle spine, but can also radiate into the arms and legs. The area where it hurts feels hard and numb. Muscle tension can be felt as a knot under the skin. Other symptoms that do not always occur include circulatory disorders in the hands and feet and bouts of dizziness.

Caution pain memory

Some muscle tension lasts for longer periods, either due to illnesses or because their cause persists. This is especially true for incorrect sleeping positions or constant sitting. Pain is an important signal from the body. It not only shows the problem area, but also indicates the healing: with a painful foot, we act more carefully and thus protect it.

The body also has a pain memory. If pain stimuli persist at one point for a long time, the brain gets used to the impulse and also emits it without the concrete trigger. This can be uncomfortable with tension: it becomes chronic. The longer the pain persists, the worse it becomes, although the cause of it has not changed. The nervous system is becoming more sensitive.

Which muscles are most affected?

Three muscles in particular react to constant stress and improper strain: the shoulder blade lifter, the trapezius muscle and the bones muscle. The shoulder blade lifter is connected to the nerves in the back of the head. That is why tension on the shoulder blade leads to headaches - one of the most common tension symptoms. Almost every second person is affected at least once in a lifetime. The pain can also originate from the neck muscles, which can be determined by means of electromyography.

What to do about tension?

If the pain is severe, you need physiotherapy. You can take action yourself against tight muscles if the pain is not yet too great. If you have less serious problems, you can schedule exercise into your everyday life. It is best to exercise regularly but moderately, distributed over the whole week and never occasionally but intensely. Rather, irregular high-performance sports create new muscle tension or make the existing symptoms worse.

Relaxation in the office

You can also incorporate relaxation training into office work in order to solve existing tensions or to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

  • Keep your head straight. Although this is unusual at first, it relaxes the neck.
  • Take breaks. If you work on the computer for a long time, take at least five to ten minutes an hour to move, turn your neck, shake your arms and legs, climb stairs or go to the bakery if possible.
  • Do not let yourself be put under pressure, neither by the task itself nor by the superiors.
  • Go to colleagues instead of sending them emails.
  • Place your desk, worktop and laptop at eye level. Then the back stays straight.
  • In between, pull your shoulders up and drop them again.
  • Put a heating pad or a hot water bottle on your neck regularly, which promotes blood circulation and relaxes the muscles.
  • Do strength training - if you already suffer from tension, target these muscles.

Jogging, swimming, canoeing and dancing

Jogging promotes blood circulation and relaxation of the neck muscles. Run easily without exerting yourself. Swimming is particularly good at preventing muscle tension in the neck, back and shoulders. The muscles are challenged, but at the same time they are spared because quick movements under water are hardly possible. Canoeing is the best compensation for computer work. The even movements with the paddles equally strain the muscles in the arms, shoulders, chest and back. A straight posture is elementary for dancing - ideally suited to prevent tension. They raise their heads, stretch their neck and whole body.


Massages can relieve existing tension. The application of heat also helps to loosen tense parts of the body.

Other methods of treatment and prevention

  • Kneipp cures with warm or cold showers ensure good blood circulation.
  • Meditation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation relieve stress.
  • Ergonomic chairs with a springy backrest relieve the back.
  • Yoga also ensures good blood circulation in the muscles.

(Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • M. Burnus, V. Steinhardt, V. Benner: Relationship between stress and muscle tension at the VDU workstation, magazine Prevention and Health Promotion, issue 3/2012
  • Stephen D. Silberstein: Tension Headache, MSD Manual, (accessed 08.08.2019), MSD
  • Lyall A. J. Higginson: Body Pain, MSD Manual, (accessed 08.08.2019), MSD
  • A. Bayas, R. Gold: Diagnostic principles for muscle diseases, advances in neurology · Psychiatry, (accessed 08.08.2019), Researchgate
  • D. Heuss et al .: Diagnostics and differential diagnosis in myalgia, German Society for Neurology (DGN), (accessed 08.08.2019), DGN

Video: Tension Type Headache (July 2022).


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