“I think I just need some stretches.”
This is a comment I hear all the time when people come in for an evaluation. When I ask, “What stretches have you been doing?” They typically describe or show me a collection of stretches they’ve been doing for weeks, months or years. My follow up question is: “Do those stretches seem to help your condition?” Most people express uncertainty when presented with this question. They feel like their stretches help but they’re curious why, if they’re helping, their condition continues to worsen.
The stretching deception:
Most stretches feel good when we do them. I don’t mean a hair-raising, tear your muscle apart type of stretch, but a moderate tension type of stretch. Here’s the reason: When you stretch your body senses tension through your muscle spindles, small organs that sit in the belly of muscles surrounded by muscle fibers. These muscle spindles transmit this information to your brain, which then processes this information and sends out information via gamma motor neurons to reduce the body’s sensitivity to this stretch by stiffening the surrounding muscle fibers. This process also decreases the “danger” signal sent by your body from the painful area. This is a highly complex process I’ve seriously simplified here to illustrate the key point:
A routine stretch of your painful area will make that area feel better, but the effect is temporary. Your body’s sensory system is busy sensing a stretch and keeping your body safe, so it no longer requires a response to the “painful” sensation. The purpose of pain is to spur you into action. Doing a stretch temporarily fulfills your brain’s desire for novel input.
The main issue with doing a stretch repeatedly just because it feels good is this: maybe you are overstretching injured tissue, but your nervous system is signaling this is okay. If your symptoms are remaining over the long term, then whatever stretch you are doing is not likely helping your body heal and overcome this pain cycle. You should work with a healthcare provider to test your stretching routine and use a process of pain-mapping to determine its utility. Even stretches considered useful under normal circumstances can cause problems when you’ve had an injury.
“Tissues take time,”:
This was an adage preached by a mentor of mine many years ago. Especially when a patient would yearn for a 1-visit miracle-when all their problems vanish after one session. While this can occasionally happen, it’s not the norm. This is especially true when you’ve been dealing with a painful issue for many months or even years.
Questions to ask yourself:
What stretches do I habitually perform? Over the past 4 weeks, am I having symptoms less often? Are they less intense? If the answer is ‘no’ or you’re not sure, it may be time to change your habits or routine. Stretching is useful when directed toward a specific goal. The only way to know if it’s useful is if you track the level of benefit you receive.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.