Confused by the difference between muscle tone and muscle strength? Not to worry, you are not alone. We get this question a lot so we’ll try and better explain here in this post.
Imagine your muscles are like a rubber band, and when you stretch to touch your toes or pick something up, you’re increasing the tension on the band. Most people experience a certain amount of resistance or tension when they stretch their muscles to do something.
Muscle tone is the amount of tension inside a muscle when the muscle is at rest. Muscle tone is on a spectrum and there can be instances of too much tension in the muscle (high tone or hypertonic) or not enough tension in the muscle (low tone or hypotonic).
If your child is hypertonic, their muscles are stiff and tense even when they’re not doing anything. It’s hard for the muscles to relax unless your child is fully asleep. Children with hypertonia make stiff movements and have poor balance. They may have difficulty feeding, pulling, walking or reaching.
If your child is hypotonic, their muscles are floppy and can’t maintain muscle contraction for as long as children with normal muscle tone. Children with low muscle tone typically have weak core muscles, poor core stability and lack endurance for gross and fine motor activities. They may also struggle with games that require coordinated, controlled movements.
One of the most important things to note is that muscle tone is controlled by the brain at an unconscious level and whether a child is born with either low, high, or normal tone is determined at birth. This is not something that can be permanently changed.
Muscle strength, on the other hand, CAN be changed. Muscle strength occurs when you actively contract your muscles to be able to pull, push, lift or move. Muscle strength is something that we can and should increase. Increasing the strength of muscles allows the body to compensate for the low tone.
Sometimes hypertonia and hypotonia are apparent at birth, but many times issues don’t come up until months or years later. It’s never too late to notice an issue and seek a medical opinion and potentially therapy. Occupational therapy can help children with differences in muscle tone to increase their flexibility, build coordination, develop strength and improve balance. Noticing an issue is the first step towards getting your child they treatment they need.