Unfortunately, aches and pains are a part of life. You might wake in the morning to discover your hips are incredibly tight or feel a stabbing pain in your knee as you walk around. Those nagging aches can have a variety of causes: sitting too long, lifting with your back instead of your legs, certain types of exercise like running or cycling or an old injury flaring up.
But there's another, lesser-known cause that may surprise you. Sometimes stress and trauma can cause you to experience tightness in the hip flexors as well — and that can lead to joint pain.
Because the psoas major (part of the hip flexors) is a fight-or-flight muscle, any trauma (be it emotional or physical) can lead the muscle to grip and hold stress, sometimes for years, says Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones, author of "The Vital Psoas Muscle: Connecting Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being." "Relaxation techniques are key to its healing and release."
The Psoas and Trauma
The psoas major is so closely related to emotional stress and trauma that yoga instructors, psychologists and trauma researchers alike are beginning to tap into this connection.
In recent years there's been a push to understand the ways our bodies can hold on to trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., explains the connection between the brain and the body's response to trauma in his 2015 book, "The Body Keeps the Score." These stressors can be big, life-changing traumas, and they can also be normal, expected stressors that you experience in everyday life.
Dr. van der Kolk's work is connected to sensorimotor psychotherapy, a methodology that views the body as an untapped resource in the healing of trauma — meaning what you do with your body physically can help it heal emotionally.
3 Ways to Relieve Hip Tightness
When you're experiencing this kind of emotion-based muscle tightness, the best course of action is to slow down and to pay attention to the pain.
"Our bodies are not out to get us. They're our friends. They're trying to help us survive," says Isabelle Richards, a trauma therapist at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center based in Gurnee, Illinois. "So let's make friend with our bodies." Here are three ways to help with the healing process — both physically and emotionally.
1. Hit the Yoga Mat
Yoga offers some great solutions to hip tightness, Staugaard-Jones says. Crescent lunges and the Warrior poses strike the perfect balance between stretching the back leg while strengthening the front — both important in combatting hip tightness. Backbends can also be a great way to release tension in the hips, though Staugaard-Jones says they should only be done with a trained instructor.
To get into each of these yoga poses, you want to begin with downward-facing dog. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. From there, curl your toes under and push through your hands and feet, lifting your knees so that your legs are straight. Keep your back flat and extend through the hips, allowing your heels to touch the ground if they can. Relax the neck and allow your gaze to fall to your feet.
Begin in downward dog and step your left foot forward between your hands. Align your knee over your ankle. Come onto the ball of your back foot and square your hips so they face forward. As you breathe in, raise your arms above your head, turning your palms to face each other. If that's too much, you can modify the pose by dropping your back knee to the floor. Once you've completed your lunge with your left foot forward, head back to downward dog and repeat on the other side.
There are three different Warrior poses, and they can all help with hip tightness. Warrior I is a great place to start. To get into this pose, start in downward dog. Step your right foot forward. Plant your left foot at a 45-degree angle. Check your front knee (right) to make sure it's in line with that ankle. Inhale as you bring your arms and torso up. Hands can extend overhead or meet at your chest. Focus on bringing you back hip forward to release the hip flexor.
2. Stop Sitting So Much
Another way to help relieve tension? Don't sit as much. Staugaard-Jones says the most common stressor on the hip flexors is sitting. "We do more of it than we think, even athletes. We are a society of hip flexion: sitting to work on the computer, watch TV, play video games, eat, read, drive, fly, study, etc.," she says. "Sitting so much weakens and shortens the hip flexors."
If your day job keeps you deskbound, though, there are some things you can do. Set a timer or keep an eye on the clock so that every 30 to 60 minutes you make it a point to get up and walk around the office. You can take the long way to the meeting room, bathroom or cafeteria. Or, even better, take a stretch break. Do the poses listed above, or try one of these yoga poses you can do at your desk.
3. Find a Good Therapist
You can also find relief through body-focused approaches to psychotherapy. As mentioned above, sensorimotor therapy (also described as "body-oriented talk therapy") can help you work through emotional and physical pain simultaneously.
The approach works by combining traditional talk therapy with teaching clients to become more aware of their bodies. They learn to check in with the body and use this body awareness to release the stresses that the body is holding on to without the mind's conscious knowledge.
Or look into Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy's resources for trauma survivors that can guide you or a loved one in the right direction.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you suffer from lower-back, hip or knee pain? Did you ever think there could be an emotional component? Have you ever done any of these stretches for your tight hips? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!