Grunting during movement usually happens as either the result of actual pain and stiffness or as a learned behavior that has nothing to do with pain. It's crucial to point out that this habit can develop at any age. Notably, grunting is also prominent among athletes, particularly tennis players and weightlifters.
Interestingly, studies suggest that the act of making a sound leads to an increase in force. For example, they result in harder hits in tennis. The reason for that, however, is yet to be determined. One theory is that grunting may activate the body’s sympathetic response and trigger stronger muscle contractions in the process. While getting up from the couch isn’t an Olympic sport, letting out a grunt while doing so may lead to the same result - it could give your core muscles a boost to help them complete the task.
Many people also make these sounds simply out of habit. Even when there is no significant pain or stiffness, “grunting happens because they’ve subconsciously learned it to be a normal response,” said physical therapist Lisa N. Folden. A person may have learned the behavior from his or her parents or picked them up from friends or spouses without realizing it. Once you become aware of it, tune in and try to understand if you actually feel pain while moving, or you just let out the sound automatically. If it’s the latter, conscious motivation and discipline should do the trick to stop it.
Grunting when you sit, stand, or bend over can also be a sign of decreased muscle strength, which can either naturally occur with age or be the result of long bouts of inactivity. A movement can contract or stretch a sore or tight muscle, add pressure to a sore joint, or stress the ligament in a joint. Any of these mechanisms can cause pain or difficulty during physical activity. You might also hold your breath to force muscle contraction and let out a grunt once you resume breathing.
While making a grunting noise doesn’t lessen or ease the pain in any way, it provides a mental release to the load placed on your body.
The short answer is that grunting sounds during movement usually aren’t anything to worry about. The best way to prevent or stop them from happening is to stay active and maintain as much flexibility as possible. Needless to say, both of these activities are beneficial for your overall health for a myriad of other reasons too.
Physical therapists generally recommend stretching the muscles from head to toe several times each week and remembering to hold static stretches for 30 seconds. You can find more tips on stretching here: 6 Stretches That'll Improve Your Flexibility and Motion, and here: Active Stretching: What It Is and How To Do It.
The major muscle groups of the body that benefit from regular stretching are the knees and hamstrings, lower back, calves, and ankles, as well as the head, neck, and shoulders. If you’d like to both stretch and strengthen the body, the best moves to add to your workout are full range-of-motion squats and lunges. If you have any mobility problems, try to complete 3-6 sit-to-stand exercises from a chair as slowly as possible a few times a week.
When is grunting a cause to see your doctor? According to the physical therapist David Miranda, the only cases when grunting is a red flag are:
- Persistent grunting after practicing any of the above-listed exercises for a while.
- If you appear to be generally healthy or are under 40 years of age, but still grunt to exert force.
Also, if you notice a significant decline in your ability to perform normal activities, the best thing to do is to consult a physician. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to stay in tune with your body and do the best you can to feel physically comfortable and strong.
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