Natural Therapy for Tight Leg Muscles

Stretching and other natural treatments can help you manage your tight leg muscles. (Image: jacoblund/iStock/GettyImages)

We are now witnessing an unprecedented obesity epidemic. Doctors have started to recognize the important role exercise can play in helping their patients lose weight. Yet, many barriers to physical activity exist in these patients, such as wanting to avoid physical discomfort. Natural treatments like stretching, training and massage can give you a pain-free workout experience by easing the muscle tension in your legs.

Cause and Effects

Physical activities like running may cause tiny tears in your muscle fibers. This damage triggers many symptoms including muscle tightness. Other signs of muscle damage include increases in creatine kinase and feelings of muscle soreness.

Muscle tightness does more than just cause physical discomfort. It also places you at risk for injury. For example, a study in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine found a relationship between muscle tightness and ankle sprains in ice skaters. The authors speculated that having tight leg muscles makes the ankle joint more rigid and thus more brittle.

Explore Treatment Options

A 2018 article in the Journal of Psychiatry and Brain Science lists the many reasons people have increasingly turned to natural medicine. Patients are unhappy with the ineffectiveness of conventional treatments, have had negative experiences with licensed physicians and have grown weary of the side effects caused by prescription drugs.

Natural medicine provides an alternative approach. Practitioners of these treatments have different goals. For example, they strive to restore overall balance and attack the root problem. Natural medicine also places greater emphasis on prevention.

Minimize Your Risks

All treatments — including natural ones — have risks. Most media outlets present natural medicine in a favorable way, and this positive aura can cause people to ignore the limitations of these remedies. For example, news reports don't typically provide important details about studies claiming positive results. Treatments can also cause unexpected reactions.

Manual therapy offers you a convenient way to treat tight leg muscles, but massage can cause side effects in some cases. An undiagnosed medical condition can also contribute to muscle tightness. Before pursuing any treatment, meet with a health care professional who can help you find a treatment option that best suits your situation and that is consistent with your values.

Practice Tight Muscle Prevention

The best way to treat tight leg muscles is to prevent them from becoming tight in the first place. Unfamiliar exercises trigger muscle tightness, so practicing a movement will greatly decrease it. Trainers call this the repeated bout effect, and you can use it to your advantage. A 2013 report in the European Journal of Applied Physiology nicely illustrates this interesting phenomenon in older adults. These researchers used range of motion, ROM, to assess muscle tightness.

Participants were divided into two groups: experimental and control. The experimental group did pretreatment leg extension exercises using 10 percent of their maximum strength. The control group did these exercises using 100 percent of their maximal strength. One week later, both groups did the exercises using 100 percent of their maximal strength.

The low-intensity exercise didn't cause muscle damage. The high-intensity exercise did. Compared to the control group, the experimental group showed less muscle stiffness in the days after the second bout of exercise. They also recovered faster during this time. The authors offered several possible explanations for the protective effect of the low-intensity exercises, including anatomical and chemical changes.

Stretch, Stretch, Stretch

Carrying objects places you at risk for back pain and even spinal damage. Having tight hamstring muscles increases your risk. A 2017 report in the Journal of Medical Investigation tested whether active stretching could help decrease leg tightness in teenagers. These researchers measured tightness by assessing the patients' flexibility during simple poses.

The subjects did five short sessions of active stretching each day for two months. The stretching targeted muscles in the upper and lower legs. Compared to baseline, the treatment decreased muscle tightness in all targeted muscles. Researchers believe that this treatment can also help decrease lower-back pain.

Use a Foam Roller

Physical activity often triggers delayed-onset muscle soreness, DOMS. It's difficult to prevent this negative side effect of exercise, but athletes are increasingly turning to foam rolling as a way to manage it. A 2019 report in the journal Sports evaluated the effect of a foam roller on tight leg muscles. These researchers used a mechanical device to measure muscle stiffness in the subjects' legs.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three interventions: foam rolling, cycling and control. The scientists did stiffness assessments before and after an intervention. Subjects in the foam rolling condition showed a decrease in thigh stiffness, and those in the cycling condition showed an increase.

Find a Massage Therapist

Professional athletes often get a massage after a game. Despite this popularity, the usefulness of this intervention remains controversial. Yet, massage may offer you a natural way to prevent muscle tightness. A 2015 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports explored this possibility in healthy volunteers. Researchers used shear-wave elastography to assess leg muscle stiffness.

This study involved an interesting approach, with scientists massaging one leg and leaving the other untreated. Compared to baseline, a seven-minute massage caused an immediate decrease in muscle stiffness. However, this positive effect disappeared within three minutes.

Try a Vibrating Platform

Trainers have seen the benefits of vibration treatment in the gym. For example, local vibration may offer you an alternative to stretching. A 2014 report in the Biology of Sport looked at the effects of whole-body vibration on lower-leg flexibility in adult divers using a sit and reach test — a reliable and valid measure of hamstring flexibility.

Participants received 15 minutes of vibration treatment. Compared to their baseline, whole-body vibration increased hamstring flexibility. It also increased lower-body explosive power. These effects lasted for at least 15 minutes. Doctors consider vibration therapy safe, but it can cause dizziness and fatigue.

Warm Up to Decrease Stiffness

Doing a proper warmup is one of the best home remedies for muscle pain. Decreasing pain helps you decrease muscle tightness. A 2019 paper in the Journal of Sport Science and Medicine documented this effect in healthy adults doing leg extension exercises. These researchers used a dynamometer to measure active and passive stiffness.

The subjects did five minutes of dynamic stretching exercises for their warmup. Compared to their baseline, warming up caused a 7 to 10 percent increase in ROM. Dynamometer readings also indicated a decrease in the passive stiffness of the participants' hamstrings. These effects lasted for at least 90 minutes.

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