I was training with a new client (beginner exerciser) and had occasion to touch her traps when illustrating a point. They were hard as rocks! I commented on it, and she said her biceps, triceps and calves were all the same, even in rest. She has not worked out previously. I've never seen this before. Is it a medical condition?
That’s an interesting occurrence. Something like this can remind you how truly different individuals can be from one another. More information is required to determine if there is a medical, orthopedic or neurological condition associated with this client. Red flags to look out for would be pain, numbness, tingling, inflammation, swelling or any other symptoms such as headaches that occur during or shortly after exercising particular muscles in question, etc. I’ll assume that this a regular client. If that’s the case, its not uncommon to find someone who can be as hard as a rock or soft as a pillow, and there are an infinite amount of combinations that can be seen in people even in different body parts of the same individual. Muscular hardness is almost always evidenced by palpation, as it is deceptive by sight alone. The hardness component of the musculature, however, can be influenced by a number of factors which are listed below.
Possible Medical Explanations for Muscle Hardness
- Muscle Rigidity - Continuous involuntary sustained muscle contraction, which is often a manifestation of BASAL GANGLIA DISEASES.
- Muscle Spasticity - A form of muscle hypertonia associated with upper MOTOR NEURON DISEASE. Resistance to passive stretch of a spastic muscle results in minimal initial resistance (a "free interval") followed by an incremental increase in muscle tone.
- Myotonia - Prolonged failure of muscle relaxation after contraction. This may occur after voluntary contractions, muscle percussion or electrical stimulation of the muscle.
Factors that Influence Muscle “Hardness”
- Genetic body type and characteristics - This includes the propensity for general muscular tone and tissue elasticity. There are certain people who have the genetic makeup to be naturally toned and muscular, despite any prior history of exercise. The same genetic principle applies to the skin and its elasticity, which can vary greatly.
- History of physical activity and general condition of the body - There are many cases when a person who has engaged in certain physical activities at a young age for a period of time retain the conditioning associated with the activity. For example, this is common in gymnasts and dancers who start at an early age and to varying degrees can maintain muscular tone and strength into adulthood. The general condition of the body also plays a role with regards to body fat composition, training age and training experience.
- Health of the detoxification and elimination systems of the body - The quality factor of the pathways the body uses to cleanse and detoxify can influence hardness. If they are deficient at any level, fluid retention can result as a provisional measure, causing an increase in the amount of interstitial fluid in certain tissue. This can influence musculature in both ways, hardening a muscle or softening it, depending on the individual and his or her status.
- Myofascial and trigger point status - The fascia enveloping muscle fiber can vary in pliability from person to person. Most people tend to be on the tighter side. Myofascial buildup can also create and/or intensify trigger points throughout the body, particularly at the connective tissue junctions and sites. There are a number of reasons that can exacerbate fascial buildup. The more there is, the harder and tighter a person will be.
- Chronic exposure to stress - This is a big factor that can create all kinds of facilitation in particular muscles. Stress revs up the body and increases electrical activity, providing the perfect environment for muscular contraction. These are the people who can’t relax while being stretched or receiving a massage. Some people don’t even realize they’re contracting when they’re supposed to be relaxing while on the treatment table. The most common areas for tightness due to stress are the neck and shoulders.
- Length/tension relationships throughout the musculoskeletal system - Length/tension relationships in the body are important. Imbalances in the musculoskeletal system can alter the hardness of a given muscle. Certain environments such as the workplace or in sports change musculature, making certain areas long/weak or short/tight. Its important to know why a muscle is tight before stretching it as it could backfire. A muscle can and will tighten or spasm to stabilize another muscle that is weak or unstable.