Stiff muscles after sitting in front of a computer all day? Muscle stiffness after running a marathon? Then you’ve probably heard someone say that you should stretch more. Is stretching really the “magic fix” for the tightness in your muscles?
You will find all kinds of stretches for different aches and pains on the Internet, but stretching at the wrong time can cause more harm than good. If you stretch an injury too soon it can cause more damage. In conditions like tendinopathy the stretch will give you temporary relief, but make no difference to the actual problem, or even worse.
Some muscle spasms can be stretched, but if the origin is nerve, you’ll tear the fibers apart. Muscle tightness can guard a deeper underlying problem. If you keep on stretching, you’re working against your body’s way of protecting itself. That’s why it import to know if, when and how much or how far you can push into a stretch.
Stretching can be very useful when treating pain and stiffness, though. But how will you know the difference between the right and wrong times for stretching? That’s where a physiotherapist comes in. We find and diagnose what’s causing your tight muscles and (if necessary) give you appropriate stretches at the right time.
What exactly is stretching?
A stretch is when soft tissue, like a muscle, is placed in a lengthened position. Think of a door hinge allowing movement of a door. It can be all the way open or closed, but there’s also a range in between where it isn’t one or the other. When the door is completely open the hinge stops further movement. This can be compared to a muscle in an elongated position where it stops further movement like reaching down to touch your toes. You will feel a stretch at the back of your thighs as your hamstring muscles move from a relaxed position in standing to an elongated position as you lean forward.
Why we use stretching during treatment
To answer this question we need to recap what a muscle does first. Muscles are attached to your skeleton and their main function is to make movement possible. If the muscle contracts or shortens, the two ends move towards each other. For instance the small muscles in your hand contract to make a fist when you pick up a grocery bag or your keys. When you put the bag down or drop your keys the muscles relax and let you open your hand again.
The problems start when the muscles get “stuck” in a shortened position, also known as a muscle spasm. If we think of the hand analogy again – you’ll never get anything done if your hand is always closed in a fist. Pain, fatigue, stress and sustained positions are some of the causes of muscle tightness. Causing that constant feeling of spasm and discomfort when you move. This muscle tightness also puts extra strain on your joints and nerves leading to a vicious cycle of pain, leading to muscle spasm and muscle spasm leading to pain.
Stretching as part of treatment can help restore the balance between the contract and relaxed phases of a muscle. This will help you with pain relief and can also improve the constant feeling of stiffness. Stretching can also be a useful part of rehabilitation to inhibit (or deactivate) tight muscles that limit movement, allowing us to target other muscle groups more effectively.