Should You Stretch to Get Rid of Your Pain?
Just keep “stretching”…….does that sound familiar?
Often times it’s a phrase used when you have been seeing a medical professional for some kind of musculoskeletal pain and you haven’t seen the results that you’d like. You may have come across an article on the Internet or been given advice from a friend that tells you to “stretch” whatever body part is painful. There lies the problem though. Most of the time “stretching” just isn’t enough to solve your problem. Sure, it is a part of the solution (but most of the time its <10% of the solution!). Think about it for a second. When is the last time you had persistent pain and was able to “stretch out” the pain for it to go away (without it coming back). That clinically doesn’t happen very often.
I see it on the faces of frustrated individuals who are still in pain despite their persistent stretching. While stretching can help improve the flexibility of your muscles, it does not address underlying deficits in muscle strength, endurance, stability, and motor control (the ability of your muscles to move efficiently within a certain range). Deficiencies in these areas are more likely the cause of your musculoskeletal pain and stretching does not help improve those deficiencies. For instance, those tight muscles you are “stretching” are often muscles that are tensing up because they are being “overworked” due to weakness in other surrounding muscles.
Let’s use an example of the “low back”. When you have muscles that constantly tighten up in your low back and you experience a “stiff” feeling, then that is likely due to weakness in the stability muscles of your back. Those stability muscles are not performing their job very well causing the muscles around them to work overtime. What happens when you yourself work overtime? You become tired, maybe a little irritable, and not pleasant (think about what your muscles go through!). Same goes for the neck. This day and age, with computers, the amount of people with neck pain has definitely spiked in numbers! One of the most common occurrences with neck pain is a feeling of tightness in the neck down into the shoulder area. Stretching won’t help this condition, at least not unless you address the weak muscles that aren’t doing their job of supporting the spine and other joints.
Does Stretching Work?
Now, by no means am I saying that stretching is bad for you or that you shouldn’t stretch. I am just discussing how stretching alone is often not the solution to your musculoskeletal pain. Many people who have come to see me say they have been through a “stretching” program and it hasn’t worked. People often think of exercises as being a series of stretches, and while stretching is considered a form of exercise, it is certainly not the only form. There can be much confusion out there on what form of exercise can help decrease pain and get the body to move pain-free again. This is usually done with a combination of tactics including hands-on techniques to help relieve pain followed by strength and stability work on the muscles.
Research supports comprehensive programs when it comes to addressing our pain. While stretching can be a component of these programs, it by no means should be the only form of exercise used to address your pain. It is important to be able to target the specific muscles, nerves, or tendons that may be causing your pain. This can be done with a proper assessment of the area where your discomfort is to determine the source. Then by figuring out what the source of the pain is you will be able to understand what type of exercise will be most appropriate for that specific problem. So if you have been in pain lately (maybe even for quite a while) I would ask, “has just ‘stretching’ been able to help solve your problem?”