Muscle Guarding & The Pain Cycle

Muscle guarding is your body’s first response when the pain cycle is activated. When you suffer and injury, it kicks in a continuous loop of negative issues known as the pain cycle. The following diagram gives a picture of how this happens.

Muscle guarding and pain cycle

This diagram contains a lot of information, the individual points below should help to make it clear.

PAIN: When an injury occurs: your bodies first alarm is pain. In this situation, you can think of pain as the introduction to this cycle.

MUSCLE GUARDING: The same nerves that signal to you pain, also indicate an injury has happened. Your body’s protective response is to cause the muscles around the injured area to tighten up as a means of guarding the injury.  In short, muscle guarding is your body’s protective mechanism to splint the injured area.

RESTRICTED MOBILITY: In the short term, muscle guarding for protection can be good. However, if it goes on too long, it becomes detrimental. The longer the muscle guarding lasts, it creates restricted mobility in the joints, long past the time the damage tissues have healed. This happens because our body adapts to not using the injured area and related muscles. Now muscle guarding has gone from protection, to causing problems itself.

An example of this would be if you have injured your neck, say in an auto accident. The muscles in your neck will initially stiffen up due to the pain and muscle guarding kicks in to keep you from moving your injured neck too much. Unfortunately, your brain will always attempt to find a way for normal motion and begin to create compensating movements. Instead of bending your neck backwards to allow you to look up, you could bend backwards from lower in your back. Another example could be instead of turning your head to look right or left, you rotate your upper body side to side.

MUSCLE WEAKNESS AND ATROPHY: If muscle guarding and restricted mobility last too long, the muscles can become weak and begin to atrophy or shrink in size. This is truly the example of “If you don’t use it, you lose it!”

This process is no different than when due to lack of exercise, we begin to loose muscle mass and become weaker.

DECREASED FUNCTION: The continued consequences of prolonged muscle guarding and the next step in the pain cycle is a decrease in function. The truth is, this was started by the injury and has been continuing throughout the entire cycle. The normal response of your body should be to restore the normal function of an injured area and prevent the pain cycle from continuing. Unfortunately, this is not always the case! Decreased function means we begin either consciously or unconsciously to limit our lifestyles. Because the injured area is stiff and sore, we begin to not use it like we should.

EMOTIONAL & MENTAL STRESS: Due to the continued pain, guarding and loss of function, various emotional stresses can develop. Anger, frustration, depression, and helplessness are just a few. The sad fact is as these emotional and mental stresses manifest, they increase the stress and tension in our body and lower our motivation. This leads to continued pain and increases the muscle guarding and the continuation of the pain cycle. Left untreated, it becomes a continual downward spiral!


In order to break this cycle, the focus should be to reduce or minimize the source of pain. The key is to understand that pain from the initial injury is not the cause. If is residual pain that continues to feet the cycle. Once the injured tissue has healed, the pain we experience is the result of dysfunction i.e.: muscle guarding and limited mobility, that is the product of the pain cycle. The focus of treatment now should be to apply treatment the interrupts the continuation of this cycle.

There are many physical therapies that can be applied to help break this cycle including: heat, ice, massage, electrical stimulation therapies etc. However there are two treatments that are the most effective and that is chiropractic adjustments and specific, active exercise therapies.

Research has demonstrated that chiropractic adjustments have a significant impact on the nerves of the body, both at the previously injured site and on the central nervous system. When an adjustment is performed, the quick force triggers different, larger, nerve fibers than the pain fibers. Putting it simply, it overrides the pain sensation. Additionally, the nerve stimulation travels to the brain and triggers a response that results in a relaxation of the muscles that were previously guarded.

Specific exercise therapy works to not only to increase mobility and muscle strength, it works with your brain to “reprogram” proper movement. This in conjunction with chiropractic care is the best options to stop the muscle guarding and break the pain cycle.

Our office can help you stop the muscle guarding and break the pain cycle! Give us a call today! (314) 731-4383