Stretching doesn’t work the way we think it does. At all. If you’ve ever spent your time gritting your teeth, pulling your arms or legs or (eek) neck into weird and wonderful positions to feel that pull, before noticing that a few hours later they’re back to where they were before, you’ll know that stretching doesn’t make your muscles stretchy. To understand why stretching isn’t the key to flexibility, we first have to understand a bit more about how and why our muscles stretch in the first place.
All humans have a reflex in our nervous system called the myotatic reflex. Believe it or not- you’ve probably had this tested without even knowing it. It’s the one we activate when we use a reflex hammer to hit just below your knee which makes your leg jump, or the one just above the elbow which does the same to your arm.
This reflex is the body’s pre-programmed response to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. When the muscle is stretched (as in when hit by the reflex hammer), an impulse is sent to the spinal cord to contract that muscle (and relax the muscle that works in opposition to it), causing the limb being tested to jump. These reflexes are what are called “monosynaptic” as there is only one junction for any signal to pass through before the body sends a response (the message going in->junction->message coming back happens in the spinal cord, bypassing the brain to make sure the response happens quickly) Think how rapidly your knee jumps when it’s hit by the reflex hammer- it’s usually just 1-2 milliseconds before the body responds.
We use these tests in clinic to check the integrity of your spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system, and they can be vital in helping us identify neuromuscular conditions. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. You might be wondering what purpose these reflexes have? Well, one of their most important functions is to prevent us from tearing our muscles/tendons/ligaments. Let’s look at the patella reflex to demonstrate this:
The patellar tendon is tapped just below the knee, which puts a rapid stretch into the tendon which attaches to your quadriceps muscle (the muscle in the front of your thigh). Muscle spindles (sensory receptors that pick up changes in the length of the muscle) pick up on this rapid increase in the length of the muscle, and very quickly send a message to contract your quadriceps in order to stop the muscle or tendon from over-stretching and causing damage. What happens when your quadricep contracts? Your lower leg comes flying up! If it doesn’t, it could indicate an underlying condition or disease affecting your muscles and nerves (which is why we always test them in clinic!)
What else do reflexes do? Well, they also stop us from falling over all the time. Stand up for a second. Now lean over. As far over to one side as you can go. What happens? The muscles on the opposite side to the lean become stretched, and that reflex is activated again, telling those muscles to contract in order to correct your posture and stop you toppling over. Now, this is a more obvious demonstration of how reflexes maintain our posture, and these postural corrections are generally carried out subconsciously (so we don’t spend all day feeling like we’re going to fall over!) It’s one of those things that we notice more when it stops working.
So what do reflexes have to do with stretching my tight muscles?
When we activate stretch receptors in the muscle, the message the body receives is to contract that muscle to prevent overstretch. So the usual static stretching that we do (for example when we bring our foot up behind us and grab on to it to stretch our quadriceps) puts our conscious and subconscious brain into war against each other. You’re consciously grabbing that foot to pull that muscle into a stretched position, and your stretch reflex (the subconscious brain) is automatically kicking in (as reflexes do) saying “No!” and tries to stop you from over-stretching and causing yourself an injury. What do we tend to do in this situation? Most people say “oooh that’s tight!” and promptly pull harder… Static stretching has actually been shown to decrease strength and athletic performance, while failing to reduce risk of injury to any significant degree.
Why does stretching feel so good then?
There are a few reasons why stretching might make you feel like you’re getting somewhere.
One: If you continually statically stretch your muscles, you can cause that stretch reflex to become less active. This can mean the muscles do lengthen, but only for a little while. Give it an hour or two for that reflex to go back to normal and the muscles will tighten back up again. This can cause problems for athletes- static stretching means the muscle is unable to contract properly because those muscle spindles aren’t functioning right. There’s plenty of research out there to show that static stretching before exercise can reduce your muscle strength, power, performance and joint stability.
Two: The more we stretch, the better we’re able to tolerate the sensation of “pulling” in our muscles. Yep, we’ve all said it “Ooooh, that’s a good stretch!” That temporary lengthening and release does feel good, but not for long.
Three: Pull a muscle or tendon enough, and you’ll begin to stretch your ligaments. Ligaments can, over time, then become stretched out to the point where they’re unable to function properly, resulting in joints that move too much, and are unstable. When ligaments get to this point, they might never regain their original length and strength.
Stretching- Will it get you out of pain?
In a nutshell, no. The nervous system rules the road. It’s totally in charge of everything that we do. If you’ve had treatment with me, you’ve probably heard me talk about the reasons why the brain can cause our joints to stiffen and feel like they’re “locked up”. It’s your brain’s way of stabilising an area that it perceives to be at risk of injury (whether that perception is founded in fact or fiction!) So on a very fundamental level, if your brain still perceives there’s an issue in that area, no amount of pulling on your muscles is going to change that. Equally,if the muscle is tight and sore because there’s a joint somewhere that’s misbehaving and preventing the muscle from functioning as it should, then stretching isn’t going to do much for that problem.
The process that tells us how tense our muscles should be at rest (known as “resting muscle tone”) is called the alpha-gamma feedback loop and it’s a lot more intelligent than we give it credit for when we’re yanking on our body to get it to stretch. In order to reset an over-enthusiastic resting muscle tone, we need slow, controlled movement which provides vital sensory feedback, allowing this system to reset itself. This makes it fairly clear that pulling our muscles into, or beyond, their stretch capacity does little other than provide a temporary increase in muscle length which then rebounds when those muscle spindles reset, giving you little more than temporary relief from pain and probably serving to prolong your discomfort by making your muscles tighter overall.
So how do we make muscles stretchy without stretching?
First we have to look at what’s causing the muscle tension in the first place. Let’s look at the hip joint as an example. It’s got anywhere between 170 to 200 degrees of flexion and 40-60 degrees of extension, so is well over the 180 degrees needed to do the splits. So aside from structural changes in the hip joint, is mainly restriction in the soft tissues that stops most of us from being able to pop the splits whenever we fancy. No amount of stretching or “bouncing” into the splits is going to get you there- for whatever reason, the muscles you need to do the splits are activating way before their supposed maximum load and your brain is telling those muscle spindles to stop before you hurt yourself.
We have to stop thinking that we can teach our muscles anything. Our muscles don’t call the shots- our brain does. If a muscle gets tight, it’s because the brain is telling it to contract. So if stretching isn’t the answer, what is?
Chiropractic care to correct the cause of the problem- We find, assess, diagnose and treat the underlying reason for the muscle tension. If you don’t know why they’re tight, how can you possibly get them better?
Foam rolling. It’s not just rolling about on the floor (although that helps!) Foam rolling activates a different receptor in the muscle (called the Golgi Tendon Organs) which sit at the junction between your muscles and tendons. When we foam roller correctly, we stimulate these GTO’s which encourage the muscle spindle activity to calm down, helping to decrease muscle tension, reduce pain and improve function.
Functional movement. Simply put, warm up based on movements you actually do in real life. How often do you actually grab your neck and pull it into a weird angle in real life? Not often. If you’re a runner, instead of doing straddle-stretches or the good old foot-behind-your-bum-and-pull stretch for the quads, try lunges, high knees and skipping instead to replicate the movement you’re going to do.
So there you have it. Stretching tight muscle tissue will only make it tighter. Find and correct the reason for the tension and enjoy super-supple muscles instead!
Chronic shoulder tension. Knots in your upper back. Stiffness, headaches, neck pain. Sounds familiar? Yep- we see chronic shoulder tension a lot in clinic- but allow us to explain why simply treating the shoulder isn’t going to solve the issue.
Firstly, muscles don’t work alone.
Our body moves and functions through a combination of movements in a coordinated group of muscles, ligaments, fascia, tendons and joints. Back pain is our bread-and-butter as chiropractors, and we know from both research and experience that pain in the back doesn’t necessarily mean a problem in the back. That pain could be caused by a problem somewhere completely different- something that often causes a bit of confusion when you come to see us for pain in one area and we end up treating somewhere completely different.
Let us paint you a picture. You work in an office. You’re stuck at a desk all day, sitting on your behind, slouched and worn out by 5PM. Your shoulders are tight and sore, and you can feel the knots building up in your upper traps, giving you a thunderous headache by the end of the day. Now, you know those knots and tense muscles are going to cause problems of their own, so you had an upper back massage two days ago and they should be feeling better… but they’re not. So is the problem the upper traps and shoulders, or is it something else?
Let’s look at the latissimus dorsi.
It’s a muscle that originates from the spinous processes of T7-L5, the iliac crest around the top of the pelvis, the thoracolumbar fascia in the middle of our back, the lower border of the shoulder blade and the lower 3/4 ribs. (Yep, it’s massive!) All those fibres attach to the humerus (the long bone in the top of your arm). Why are we talking about a muscle in the lower back? Surely a muscle in the lower back controls the lower back, right? Wrong. The lat dorsi actually serves to extend, adduct, flex and internally rotate the shoulder, and lends a mere helping fibre or two to extend and laterally flex the spine. (In case you’re interested- it also helps with our lung function and breathing. Safe to say, it’s a pretty important muscle.)
So, back to you sat at your desk.
You’re slouching, your lumbar spine is curved and unsupported, so your latissimus dorsi is stretched beyond the norm and the fibres can’t fire properly. As a result, the muscle can’t complete the role it’s supposed to, the upper trapezius steps in to help and is left to do all the hard work controlling the shoulder itself (Just like that last project your boss asked you and Jane to do together and Jane left it up to you to do all the hard work- thanks Jane….) This leads to imbalance and weakness in both the lats and lower traps not to mention a very grumpy upper trapezius. You’ve tried treating the site of the pain (with that amazing back, neck and shoulder massage) and it feels better for a day or two afterwards but then it comes back.
It’s fairly obvious by now that the problem with your tight and knotty upper traps isn’t caused by your shoulders- it’s something further afield.
So we have to look elsewhere- we look at your lower back and find that your latissimus dorsi is, surprise surprise, not happy with life. Now we’ve found that we also need to look at the Posterior Oblique Sling.* The POS includes the latissimus dorsi, glut med (in the back of the hip) and the thoracolumbar fascia (in the middle of our back.) *NB When we talk about one of the “slings” in the body, we’re talking about a specific group of muscles, fascia and ligaments which all work together to stabilise and mobilise the body.
Guess what we find when we examine you?
Your lat dorsi isn’t firing properly, which is throwing off the stability in the posterior oblique sling. Your lower back is stiff and restricted, and you can’t laterally flex properly- further compounding the problem with the latissimus dorsi (remember us saying it helps with lateral flexion of the lumbar spine?) So you can see how you’re caught in a vicious circle of dysfunction creating more dysfunction, and, in your case, leading to chronically tight shoulders that just never seem to get better!
The above is just an example of a classic case we often see in clinic.
Now, there are approximately 640 muscles in the human body, all intricately involved with the others in a chain of movement, that can have a chain of consequences if something in that chain misbehaves. To state the obvious again- each person we see is an individual, and the way dysfunction comes about is different for each person, as is the way in which the body adapts to that dysfunction.
As chiropractors, our job is to work out what’s going on and why (and then work with you to get it better) and this often involves looking at areas that might be quite far afield from where the actual pain is felt- but as you can see, there’s a reason for that.
So where to begin? How can you improve your posture and reduce pain and problems? We’d suggest starting with some simple exercises, and downloading your copy of “Understanding Pain” which will help you get to grips with chronic pain, what’s going on in your body and how you can take back control!
Alternatively, and perhaps best- is to seek professional help and get a diagnosis and treatment plan put in place. You can get started by booking your appointment today.
As the old proverb said, ‘prevention is better than cure’. So what’s the simplest thing can we do every day to prevent musculoskeletal pain?
With every patient we find the root cause or underlying issue of the problem and treat it accordingly to patient preference and clinical evidence and research. The most common problem I see from children to adults…
The most effective way of getting you out of pain quickly is self management. We provide a personal back pain toolkits and show you how to do stretches to ease pain and prevent pain or injury in the future.
Prevent back pain with these three simple steps.
Include stretching into your daily routine, or go to a regular yoga class. Think of preventing back pain like preventing tooth decay – it’s as easy as brushing your teeth. We love using foam rollers in clinic- a great addition to your stretching routine.
Use ice immediately to reduce swelling and inflammation on a new injury. Use heat on a recurring injury to reduce pain. You can use paracetamol to help prevent swelling and pain as well.
Research shows a 20 minute walk everyday will reduce the risk of back pain by 10-50%. Similarly if you are sitting down all day, get up to move about or stretch every 20-30 minutes (this also has the helpful side-effect of improving your concentration).
If you would like more hints and tips about prevention of back pain or musculoskeletal injury please read our blog page that details particular injuries and more helpful tips.
At altitude, the air is thinner, and so the heart and lungs have to work harder to pump blood and oxygen around your body. Bear this in mind, as you might find yourself getting more tired and out-of-breath than you would expect!
Start working out with your ski squats regularly a few weeks before you’re due to go on holiday, focusing on stamina and strength to ensure you can maximise your time on the slopes. Running, walking, and step machines, as well as squat exercises, are a great way to develop the muscular endurance needed for skiing and snowboarding. You’ll be ski-fit and raring to go from day one on the slopes!