What is a Contracture and How Do We Treat It?

It’s sensible to treat a contracture as soon as possible to avoid functional impotence and to ensure your pain doesn’t worsen. What’s the best way to do this?
What is a Contracture and How Do We Treat It?

Last update: 09 September, 2020

Contractures are one of the most common muscular pathologies. If you’ve played sports throughout your life, you’ve probably had a contracture. From people with physical jobs to office workers and computer scientists … anyone can suffer from them.

You may start by ignoring it because it doesn’t initially limit you. However, if you do this, it’ll just worsen over time. Therefore, it’s highly recommended to treat it in time. Prevention is better than cure!

What’s a contracture?

A contracture is an involuntary muscle contraction that’s maintained over time. In other words, the muscle shortens and stays shortened. This will lead to functional impotence, pain, and the inability to apply much force.

Functional impotence and decreased force appear because, on one hand, the muscle uses energy to contract. Thus, it starts out at a disadvantage. On the other hand, the muscle works best when it’s relaxed and at a normal length. If it starts shortened, logically, it won’t be able to contract at full force.

As for pain, it appears because, as the muscle is constantly contracted, it doesn’t allow blood to circulate properly through the fibers. In addition to not receiving the necessary oxygen supply, this situation causes toxins to accumulate.

Can a contracture be prevented?

To answer this question, you must first know what causes a contracture:

  • Excessive load. Exposing the muscles to an effort they aren’t used to, either in duration or intensity, may lead to contracture.
  • Not warming up. If you don’t prepare your muscles for the effort, a pathological response such as this one can occur.
  • Maintained positions. The reason why sedentary people can also suffer contractures is that they force their muscles to stay in the same position for long periods. In the long run, that lack of movement and oxygenation won’t allow them to relax.
  • Stress. This can also cause contractures, precisely because the people who suffer from it are in constant tension and can’t relax.
  • Poor diet. Specifically, certain deficiencies such as potassium or dehydration. These situations will prevent the muscles from having the reserves they need for a natural contraction-relaxation cycle. One of the alterations in this cycle is a contracture.
A man with shoulder pain.

From what we mentioned above, we conclude that yes, contractures can be prevented. On the one hand, exercise must be adapted to each person’s physical condition.

Also, it’s important to move at least every two to three hours and stretch, if possible. In addition, you need to sleep at least eight hours every night, follow a balanced diet, and drink enough water. Finally, it’s important to keep a good posture on a day-to-day basis, regardless of the activities that you’re doing.

How to treat a contracture

As a contracture isn’t a serious pathology, there are several ways to treat it. The more you resort to, the more likely you are to recover in a short amount of time. Here are the options you can apply at home:

  • Cold or heat. Depending on the duration of the contracture, you need to apply one or the other. During the first 24-48 hours, experts recommend cold. If the contracture lasts longer than that, they recommend heat. You can apply cold by wrapping ice cubes or packages of frozen peas in towels and making small circles on the affected area. As for heat, you can take a hot bath or use electric blankets or a heating pat.
  • Massage therapy. Although it won’t be as effective as a professional massage, asking someone to rub the affected area with both hands will help.
  • Stretching and avoiding prolonged postures. You must stretch and mobilize the affected muscle so that it works normally again.

If you visit a professional, they may recommend these methodologies:

  • Massage therapy. A physical therapist will be able to “scan” your body for contractures and massage them properly to remove trigger points. In other words, tense muscle groups.
  • Dry needling. Using acupuncture needles, a professional locates and pricks the trigger points, looking for muscle contractures. It’s a very effective technique to eliminate built-up toxins and to bring the muscle back to itself, according to a study published by the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
  • Stretches and exercises. Whatever the affected area, a physical therapist can recommend specific stretches and exercises that you can do every day.
A physical therapist treating a patient.

As research published by Clinical Rheumatology indicates, all techniques are effective, depending on the source of the contracture. Therefore, a combination of various methodologies might prove more effective.

A temporary problem

From what we mentioned above, we can conclude that muscle contracture can be treated in many different ways. Also, it seems that the longer a muscle remains contracted, the greater the energy expenditure and toxin buildup. Due to this, it’s advisable to treat it as soon as possible.

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  • J. Cabanyes. Protocolo diagnóstico de las contracturas musculares. Medicine – Programa de Formación Médica Continuada Acreditado. Volume 11, Issue 75, April 2015, Pages 4528-4531
  • S. Mansoor, M. Bayat, M. Hasan et al. Comparison of dry needling and physiotherapy in treatment of myofascial pain syndrome. Clinical Rheumatology volume 33, pages859–864(2014).
  • R. Maher, D. Hayes y M. Shinohara. Quantification of Dry Needling and Posture Effects on Myofascial Trigger Points Using Ultrasound Shear-Wave Elastography. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Volume 94, Issue 11, November 2013, Pages 2146-2150