why muscle pain keep coming back

When Your (Muscle) Problem Comes and Goes

Neck pain tension
When it goes, it’s still there….

Have you ever had a problem that seems to come and go, eventually just not going away?

It’s a first appointment conversation we have all the time:

‘How long have you had your neck pain?’

‘I’d say it’s been about a week.’

‘Have you had it before at all?’

‘Oh yeah – it’s come and gone a few times over the past four years, but this time it just hasn’t gone away so I thought I should see someone about it.’

I hate to break it to you, my friend, but that’s a four-year-old neck pain.

Most people think if you have a pain, and you rest it and the pain goes away, that the problem has as well. Actually, if you haven’t gotten rid of the underlying tension, it doesn’t go just because the pain has.

To help our clients understand why you can carry tension without feeling it, let me introduce the water bucket analogy:

The Water Bucket Analogy – A Way to Understand Tension and Pain

Imagine that your capacity to carry tension is a bucket, and water is the tension, filling up the bucket.

That bucket is pretty much always carrying some water.

Water is being put in and taken out at different rates depending on the day and activity.

Sometimes the water overflows the bucket and when it does, that’s when you feel the pain.

As soon as you’ve done something to reduce that water enough so it’s no longer overflowing, the pain will usually stop (even if it’s only a bit).

People have varying sizes of buckets – with a ‘big bucket,’ muscles get to virtual concrete before they notice any discomfort. This is the client who comes to me with a ‘little bit of lower back pain’, and I’m wondering how they’re able to move.

Other people have very small buckets. This is the client who comes in with excruciating pain, unable to turn his or her head, and all I can find is one, single knot at the top of the shoulder with very little other tension (this, by the way, is extremely rare – most people have larger vs smaller buckets).

When your bucket is near full, it only takes a small aggravator (a little extra stress at work, an extra mile in your run) to create a serious problem.

How You Fill Up Your Bucket

Muscle tension fills up your bucket over time
Pouring lots of water in means your problem will come back really quickly

On a day to day basis, you’re likely net positive (i.e. you’re putting more water in than you’re taking out).

Repetitive movements create tension (running, walking, typing).

Long-hold muscle contraction also creates tension – sitting with your head forward forces your neck and shoulder muscles to contract to hold up the weight of your head, or lifting a shoulder that has a bag on it.

Small imbalances are like putting water in the bucket with a teaspoon or a dropper (think: a very slightly forward head position, a minor deficit in glute activation).

Big imbalances are like putting water in the bucket with a large cup or a jug (think: horrific mechanics when running).

Why You Don’t Feel the Bucket as It’s Filling Up

Muscle changes very slowly over time.

As you add a little tension, your body adjusts, finds a way to work around it, and you don’t feel the tension, at first.

In one way, this is helpful – you wouldn’t want to be debilitated every time you got a little extra muscle tension.

What’s not so helpful is this means you’re slowly building up tension over time, without noticing.

Then one day you do one extra activity or movement that tips it all over the edge, and your neck goes into spasm, your calf muscle tears, or you realise you can’t lift your arm over your head.

Taking/Keeping Water Out of the Bucket

Removing tension to avoid problems
Pouring water out avoids an over-the-edge pain event

This is where taking water out of the bucket comes into play.

Believe it or not, you’re already naturally taking at least some water out of the bucket every day.

Any movement will, at least minimally, release some muscle tension by warming up the muscle or stretching it slightly. If you find a specific ache or pain gets worse when you stop going to the gym/training regularly, that’s because the heat and movement of your workouts were taking a little water out of the bucket each time.

Stretching, if done correctly, will reduce muscle tension (stretching incorrectly, on the other hand, increases it).

Massage that actually reduces muscle tension takes water out of the bucket (vs a general and/or superficial relaxing massage that doesn’t change underlying muscle tension).

Resting represents a very small amount coming out of the bucket – this is why if you have a recurring pain, stopping the activity stops the pain, but only as long as you don’t start again. When you do, the pain comes right back, because you’re once again overflowing the bucket.

There’s also the important work of reducing how much water you’re putting in in the first place.

Addressing imbalances – like fixing your posture or strengthening muscles so you have good mechanics – reduces the amount of water you’re putting in the bucket, so it fills up more slowly. The more slowly you can fill up the bucket, the less you have to do on a day-to-day basis to take the water out.

How This Analogy Helps You

Our human default is that when we’re aware of a problem, we try to fix it.

For most of us, that’s when we feel a pain.

Once you understand that you pretty much always carry some tension, even if you don’t feel it, encourages you to change your habits to avoid problems – either decreasing the water you put in, or increasing how much you take out.

Not only will you avoid problems, but you may find you generally feel better.

Our clients who have regular maintenance massage report on average feeling lighter after a session, having a bit more energy, and sleeping better.

Of course massage isn’t the only option available for taking water out of the bucket.

You should choose an activity you enjoy, as you’ll be more likely to keep with it. In addition to massage, there’s regular stretching, yoga, Alexander technique, and Pilates to name a few.

Do you know what you do that’s filling your bucket up?

Do you have poor desk posture? Less-than-ideal running mechanics? A new baby that forces you into a weird position when holding it?

What can you do to either take water out of your bucket regularly? Or put it in more slowly?

Tell us in a comment below – your solution may help someone else reading.

Do you know someone who has a recurring muscle-related pain or ache? I would really appreciate if you shared this post with them, so they can start thinking about what they’d like to do to keep their water bucket level low.

*Important note: this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. While we find this is a useful way to explain a common reason for recurring muscle-related pains we see at the clinic, chronic pain can be related to a number of issues, including more serious underlying medical conditions. If you ever experience recurring pain, we strongly recommend you see a healthcare practitioner who can give you advice with regards to your individual situation.

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