Stretching is supposed to feel good, right? Stretching is supposed to be the fountain of youth!
There are many good reasons why we should stretch and continue to stretch (even more!) as we get older. There are also a few precautions to keep in mind and it’s important to know when to ease off.
For the most part, stretching is very beneficial to our bodies. It increases flexibility and helps to prevent injury. It improves circulation by opening up capillaries within muscles and facilitates the movement of glucose into the cells. The stress busting effect of a slow paced stretch can be a moment to pause, breath and lower our blood pressure.
Use it or lose it, right? Muscles that are moved and used will stay healthy and get flushed with oxygen and nutrients. Our joints will thank you for helping them maintain or gain range of motion. When we stretch muscles across a joint, we are also stretching the surrounding tendons, ligaments and joint capsule. When stretching equally on both sides, it will help to restore structural imbalances and habitual postures we perform. This will of course, help prevent injury in the long run!
When we stretch, we are targeting all the soft tissue surrounding a joint. The muscle is typically the target tissue but we are also stretching ligaments, connective tissue, fascial tissue and surrounding nerves. The result should be a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion. Pain should not be a part of your stretching routine. No pain, no gain is not your goal here! If you are feeling pain while stretching, you may be stretching too intensely and this could cause injury. Slowly ease into a stretch and stop at a point you feel tightness but can still breath comfortably and hold it there for a count of 20-30 seconds. There is a lot of variation in the literature regarding how long to hold a stretch. Many studies show benefits anywhere from 20-60 seconds, with 2-3 repetitions per side.
Another reason you may experience pain during a stretch is if the surrounding nerve tissue is irritated. Nerve roots exit our spinal cord at the spine and branch throughout our body and down our limbs. There may be a spinal joint issue, tight fascial tissue or tight muscles that can be tethering that nerve somewhere along it’s pathway. A healthy nerve will slide and glide within it’s sheath and tolerate some traction and compressive forces. An irritated nerve that is restricted somewhere along it’s path will become hypersensitive and uncomfortable with traction or compression. If you experience pins and needles, numbness or sharpness while you are stretching, this is likely an irritated nerve tissue that is telling you to ease up! A common example of this is the sciatic nerve along the back of the leg. The sciatic nerve runs along and through the hamstring muscle at the back of our thigh. We often dig deep for that dreaded hamstring stretch and follow the no pain, no gain motto. Perhaps the stretch is painful, the toes get tingly or the leg becomes achy afterwards. This may be because the sciatic nerve or one of it’s branches are irritated.
If you are experiencing pain, tingling or achiness while stretching, we need to determine what is causing that. In the case of the sciatic nerve, it may be a spinal joint, the pelvis or a hip joint dysfunction. It may be a muscle imbalance that is loading structures asymmetrically. It may be technique, intensity or posture related. Pushing into a painful stretch can result in injury. Pain is a signal from your body to back off and relax the stretch. By moving too far into a stretch, the body will utilize a stretch reflex and will contract or shorten the very muscle you are trying to lengthen. This reflex in our body is a protective strategy! Remember to breath and relax into a stretch, holding your breath can make your body tense up and increase your blood pressure.
Stretching is important for all of us at any age. Progress slowly, be consistent, breath and you will see your flexibility improve! If you are struggling with how to stretch, having discomfort with stretching or not seeing any improvements, we would love to help. Our physiotherapists are trained to evaluate your spine and limb joints, muscle imbalances and neurovascular structures. We also have personal trainers that would be an excellent asset to help you create a personalized program for your individual needs.
Jennifer Gordon (BSc.PT, BA Kin, AFCI)