What Does The Muscular System Do?
The muscular system has three major functions: producing movement, generating heat and maintaining balance.
Every movement of your body occurs because of muscles. You are aware of, and control, much of your movement, such as when you move your arms or legs. However, there is other muscular movement that you do not control, such as the movement of food down your throat or the beating of your heart.
Muscles also generate heat. When muscles contract, they release heat, and this helps the body maintain its normal temperature.
And muscles maintain posture. Most muscles in your body are always a little contracted. This tension, or muscle tone, which is present even when you are sleeping, maintains your posture.
What Makes Up The Muscular System?
You have more than 600 muscles divided among three types of muscle tissue: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. Muscles make up roughly half of your body weight.
Skeletal muscles help the body move. Skeletal muscles are the only voluntary muscle tissue in the human body and control every action that a person consciously performs. Most skeletal muscles are attached to two bones across a joint, so the muscle serves to move parts of those bones closer to each other.
Smooth muscles, which are also called visceral muscles, are located inside organs, such as the stomach, intestines and blood vessels. These muscles are called smooth muscles because they do not have the banded appearance of skeletal or cardiac muscle. The weakest of all muscle tissues, visceral muscles contract to move substances through the organ. Because visceral muscle is controlled by the unconscious part of the brain, it is known as involuntary muscle.
Found only in the heart, cardiac muscle is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body. The heart’s natural pacemaker is made of cardiac muscle that signals other cardiac muscles to contract. Like visceral muscles, cardiac muscle tissue is controlled involuntarily. While hormones and signals from the brain adjust the rate of contraction, cardiac muscle stimulates itself to contract.
How Does The Muscular System Work?
Muscles function by contracting. In fact, muscles are the only tissue in the body that has the ability to contract.
Nerve cells called motor neurons control the skeletal muscles. Each motor neuron controls several muscle cells in a group known as a motor unit. When a motor neuron receives a signal from the brain, it stimulates all of the muscles cells in its motor unit at the same time.
The size of motor units varies throughout the body, depending on the function of a muscle. Muscles that perform fine movements — like those of the eyes or fingers — have very few muscle fibers in each motor unit to improve the precision of the brain’s control over these structures. Muscles that need a lot of strength to perform their function — like leg or arm muscles — have many muscle cells in each motor unit. One of the ways that the body can control the strength of each muscle is by determining how many motor units to activate for a given function. This explains why the same muscles that are used to pick up a pencil are also used to pick up a bowling ball.
Because muscles function by contracting, not extending, many muscles work in pairs to allow movement in opposing directions.
Most skeletal muscles are attached to two bones through tendons. Tendons are tough bands of dense connective tissue that firmly attach muscles to bones.
Muscles move by shortening their length, pulling on tendons, and moving bones closer to each other. One of the bones is pulled towards the other bone, which remains stationary. The place on the stationary bone that is connected via tendons to the muscle is called the origin. The place on the moving bone that is connected to the muscle via tendons is called the insertion. The belly of the muscle is the fleshy part of the muscle in between the tendons that does the actual contraction.
Your arm muscles are a good example. When you contract your biceps muscle, it shortens and pulls the ulna bone in your forearm closer to your upper arm bone, the humerus. When you lower your arm, you relax your biceps and contract the opposing muscle, your triceps.
Although the process is not exactly the same, smooth muscle and cardiac muscle also function by contracting.
What Can Go Wrong With Your Muscular System?
These are some of the problems that can affect your muscular system:
Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones together and help to stabilize joints. When those ligaments are stretched or torn, the result is a muscle sprain, which can cause pain and stiffness.
When muscles are stretched or torn, a muscle strain results. Sometimes, these are called “pulled muscles.” They often occur when the muscles are suddenly and powerfully contracted or when they stretch unusually far.
Myopathies are muscle diseases that affect skeletal muscles and are caused by genetic problems or metabolic disorders. Most types of myopathies result in weak skeletal muscles and often develop at a young age.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a syndrome that’s still being researched by physicians and results in extreme fatigue that doesn’t go away with rest. Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include loss of memory, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, random muscle pain, headaches, unrefreshing sleep and sore throats.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain, stiffness, fatigue, and tenderness in localized areas. While this is a difficult disease to pinpoint and diagnose and can mimic many other medical problems, it has gained acceptance as a recognized health issue over the past decade. Approximately 2% of the entire US population is affected by fibromyalgia.
Muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease that damages muscle fibers. The symptoms of muscular dystrophy disease include weakness, loss of mobility and lack of coordination. More than 50,000 Americans suffer with one of the nine forms of the disease, which can occur at any time in a person’s life and has no cure. Most types of muscular dystrophy are caused by the deficiency of a protein known as dystrophin.
Compartment syndrome is an uncommon exercised induced syndrome and causes pain, swelling and sometimes disability in a person’s legs or arms. Compartment syndrome is more common among athletes but can affect anyone.
Cerebral palsy impacts posture, balance and motor functions. Brain damage during or before childbirth causes a loss of muscle tone, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks. It is one of the most common congenital disorders.
Myasthenia gravis is a chronic autoimmune disease that results in muscle weakness and fatigue. A breakdown of the neuromuscular junction causes the brain to lose control over these muscles, which can result in difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain. It is a fatal disease that affects 30,000 Americans at any one time and leads to a loss of control over voluntary muscle movement, making it increasingly difficult to swallow, breath and speak. The disease ultimately causes paralysis and death.
How Do Your Keep Your Muscular System Healthy?
To keep your muscular system healthy, follow these three tips:
- Eat a balanced diet. Your muscles need vitamins, minerals, water, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats so that they can function at their best. Eat a diet rich in natural whole foods such as fruit, vegetables and grains to ensure you are getting adequate nutrients to keep your muscles in good shape. Your muscles are made up of around 70 percent water so make sure you drink at least eight tall glasses of water a day to stay well hydrated.
- Do strength training. Strength training, sometimes called weight training or resistance training, will improve your muscular strength and endurance. Perform two to three whole-body workouts per week on non-consecutive days to get the most from your training. You can work out by using resistance machines, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands or body weight exercises–all of which are effective for improving the condition of your muscular system.
- Stretch. Your muscles need to be stretched regularly to keep them in good shape. Stretch all of your major muscles at least after each workout and preferably every day. Muscles often tighten between or after exercises, as a result of sitting for long periods and as part of the aging process. Stretching will lengthen your muscles and prevent exercise-related and age-related shortening. Stretch your muscles gently, holding each stretch for 30 seconds or more. You might also consider a yoga class, which involves a lot of stretching.
This article is part of a series called “Your Body: An Owner’s Manual” which explains how your body systems work and how to maintain them. The first article in the series included a picture of my wife, fitness coach Kathie Lamir, who exemplifies a healthy body. Pictures of Kathie were so well received that I have included one with each article in the series