A French philosopher, Marquis de Sade once said, “the primary and most beautiful of nature’s qualities is motion.” It denotes life and its absence is death. Motion in humans is experienced with the help of bones, joints, and muscles. This along with ligaments, cartilage and tendons make up our musculoskeletal system that enables us to perform our daily activities.
We often talk about bone and joint problems and what needs to be done to improve their health. But experts say muscle health is not taken much into consideration. People usually rely on painkillers, oil massage and placing hot packs to get relief even in serious instances like kamar mai chuk parna (back strain).
Moreover, “muscle pain is generally mistaken to be pain in the bones or joints,” says Dr Allan Goldfarb, a professor of physiotherapy at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, USA while commenting for Shifa News.
Differentiating them, he further explains that muscle pains usually sore the area and problem increases when pressure is applied. Stretching the muscle also increases pain. “Bone or joint pains however, are intense and remain even without any physical activity.”
There are more than 600 muscles in the body. Some muscles can be controlled such as, those in the neck, arms and legs while muscles of the heart, lungs and kidneys are not in our control. Without muscles our bones would not be held together properly.
Shedding light on the role of muscles, Dr Allan informs, “muscle tissues are important for general health. They help with temperature regulation and send signals to the brain, heart and other tissues to facilitate their functions.”
In fact, it is more than just building a muscular body, being strong and looking attractive. Strong muscles are important to everyone, young or old. Weak muscles can lead to several minor health issues for instance, muscle soreness, spasms and cramps. Moreover, much serious problems of muscles include sarcopenia which causes loss of muscle mass and strength, myositis which causes inflammation in muscles, myasthenia gravis that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles and muscular atrophy which causes muscle wasting.
Dealing with muscle problems
Muscle soreness can arise from different factors. For instance, small tears, tightness, inflammation, overactive nerve input, and sensitive sensory receptors to pressure and tension. “Spasms occur when a muscle contracts and does not relax easily. This is involuntary and forceful. A sustained spasm becomes a cramp,” adds Dr Allan. Leg muscles are most likely to cramp but it can also occur in other body parts.
To treat minor issues, many patients tend to rely on painkillers, muscle relaxants and multi-vitamins. Nevertheless, Dr Allan does not approve of this practice saying “continuous use of drugs makes the medicine ineffective in the long run.”
Massage, also a common remedy for such issues is considered to have “temporary effect”. “Massage relaxes the stiff area for a while. It does not treat the root cause of the problem,” explains Dr Rizwan Ghafoor, an orthopedic surgeon at Fatima Medical Centre, Multan.
Hanan Azfar, a PhD in physiotherapy at City Hospital, Gujranwala, highlights the most common causes of muscle aches as “improper posture and physical inactivity”, before adding that unbalanced diet can also cause these problems.
Considering high prevalence of mental health issues in our country, Dr Rizwan considers psychological issues such as anxiety and depression also reasons behind muscle pains.
Gearing up muscles
Exercise can benefit muscle health in many ways. “It helps increase muscle strength and tone. It can also contribute to maintaining a healthy weight, regulating digestive and immune health, building and maintaining healthy bone density and joint mobility and reducing many surgical risks,” explains Hanan.
Endurance exercises are recommended for improving muscle health. These exercises involve performing an activity for an extended time or with many repetitions. “Muscles get stronger and are better able to carry out activities for a longer period. These exercises also help to tone the muscles rather than creating larger muscular bulk,” adds Dr Allan.
Not only this, endurance exercise also improves the body’s ability to carry out normal functions. It improves heart and lung functions, increases oxygen level and decreases workload on heart. “Daily tasks such as walking the stairs, lifting objects, and running errands get easier with regular exercise. Aerobic and resistance activity is also good for this purpose,” explains Hanan.
Strengthening exercises include running, jogging, cycling and swimming. These exercises involve almost all major muscles. Other examples are planks, abdominal crunches, bridging and dumbbell/weight lifting. They also help to maintain flexibility.
Stretching is yet another option. “Every muscle has a different stretching exercise which needs to be done according to the specific body part,” informs Dr Allan.
According to Dr Hanan, resistance activity at least two times a week is good for a beginner. He also suggests doing physical activity that includes strengthening, aerobics and range of motion exercises for at least 30 minutes, five times a week to maintain or improve muscular strength, endurance and flexibility.
The right food
Eating a balanced diet helps save from many issues and is necessary for a healthy body. “We know overeating can lead to various diseases. But less consumption can also lead to various musculoskeletal diseases like that of the intestine, kidney and liver,” informs Dr Rizwan.
To avoid muscle issues, adults should balance their electrolytes, calcium and vitamin intake. Eating protein foods like eggs, meat, milk, cheese broccoli and almonds help build and maintain healthy muscles. Fruits and vegetables are also important as they contain vitamins and minerals, necessary for muscle health. And carbohydrates fuel the muscles so one can feel energetic after eating whole wheat bread/chapatti, potatoes, grains, and oatmeal.
Correcting your posture
Posture is just one component of health, but it can have a surprisingly big impact on the body. Poor alignment or posture is one of the leading causes of muscular pains. Dr Israr Ahmad, an orthopedic surgeon at Hayatabad Medical Complex, Peshawar says, “back, shoulder and neck pain are the most common effects of poor posture. The most noticeable is sitting in a slouched position at desks for extended periods.” It puts great stress on upper body, especially if the body is not properly supported.
“At times, poor posture can also cause misalignment in the spine and cause further pain. In addition, it causes joint stress,” informs Dr Allan.
Joints are protected by connective tissues that create a supportive cushion. If the spine is misaligned, weight or stress needs to be redistributed to compensate for your slouching. “As a result, joints are forced to bear a heavier load that may be more than it can handle. Eventually, this leads to pain and degradation of the tissues surrounding the joints,” informs Hanan.
To prevent this, adopt a good posture. A good posture is necessary for causing less strain on all tissues of the body, better muscle balance and hence less energy is applied.“Position your body in a way that weight is equally distributed, while sitting or standing,” adds Dr Israr.