Muscle tension: how does it occur and what are the symptoms?

Muscle tension is stiffness in the muscles brought on by ongoing contraction of one or more muscles, even while at rest, which prevents the muscle from being stretched by gravity. Although it is produced by the muscular myotatic reflex , it is significantly modulated by the mesencephalon and cerebral cortex.

Numerous articular, neurological, visceral, and other disorders, as well as trauma and accidents, can increase muscle tension. However, even in the absence of trauma or illness, it can still become conditioned by a number of variables, including functional overloads, postural and static abnormalities, psychological changes, stress, and others.

How can stress-related muscular tensions develop?

Within a few seconds, a signal of an unpleasant emotion is transmitted at the physical level. The muscles in our neck and back, as well as those in our jaw and the area around our eyes and lips, instinctively stiffen up when we are under stress. As the stressful circumstance passes, the muscles will relax since they were under tension getting ready for a reaction. It is a harmless reflex activity that occurs naturally as a way for the body to protect us.

The muscles never relax and stay in a permanent state of tension when stress develops into a chronic condition.

Through a sophisticated network of intracellular communication, the process of muscular tension releases chemicals in the stimulated muscle fiber that activate the chemical energy that will shorten the muscle fiber and cause contraction. The muscle enters a state of rest when the nerve input stops, at which point the release of these molecules also stops. It prevents the correct reabsorption process when the rise in tension is steady and persistent, which causes lactic acid and harmful metabolites to build up in the muscle. 

Lack of movement, which further reduces blood flow and oxygenation, makes the situation worse. As a result, a vicious loop is created.


Simple signs of stress-related muscular tension include discomfort, pain in the afflicted location, and even stiffness in general. It has been linked to muscular spasms, contractures, persistent discomfort in the muscles, and headaches. Musculoskeletal diseases are making chronic pain situations increasingly common in humans.

The following are some typical signs: 

  • Leg cramps.
  • Headaches.
  • Anxiety generally.

Areas that experience muscular tightness from stress

  • Jaw: We frequently clench our jaws and the muscles surrounding our mouths when we are angry or stressed. We exert a lot of effort when doing this without recognizing it.
  • When you are stressed or anxious, it's natural to frown between the brows, which adds significant muscular strain to the forehead region and frequently results in a tension headache.
  • Neck and shoulders: "The triangle" that runs from the neck to the shoulders is formed by the middle trapezius fibers. Yes, they frequently ache when you touch them when you are quite exhausted. There are more muscles in that region as well, including the angular or levator scapulae.
  • All these muscles get tense through repetitive computer usage, holding a headset in the neck while talking on the phone so we can keep our hands free, carrying weight with our arms, and other arm-related tasks. Furthermore, it is a place where anxiety, hurrying, and emotional strain manifest as physical tightness.
  • Back: Stress also disrupts the muscle groups' ability to coordinate, which affects how well the back works. The paravertebral musculature and the abdominals often work in unison to maintain posture or balance while moving.

However, because this coordination depends on neural reflexes, stress changes how well these reflexes work together and leads the muscles to contract in an unnatural way, which promotes muscular contractures brought on by stress.