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  • Writer's pictureMark Austin

Stretching Isn't Always the Answer

Stretching is great! It helps to temporarily relieve pain, improves flexibility and range of motion, increases blood flow, and relaxes your body. We should all stretch from time to time. Stretching as a means of treating a tense or dysfunctional muscle, however, isn't usually very effective. Most patients who come in to my Calgary physiotherapy practice have already been stretching the affected muscle group for weeks, months, or even years. We all intuitively think to stretch tense muscles because it feels good in the moment, so that's what we keep focusing on. That said, if stretching was the answer, it would have solved the problem ages ago! Rather than trying to treat the symptom of tension with constant stretching, we need to stop and ask WHY the muscle is tense to begin with. Although there are no absolutes in rehab, many chronically tense muscles are often tense because they are over-working to stabilize or control the movement of a joint. Sometimes stretching, although it feels good in the moment, can actually keep you from getting better, as you are gaining more flexibility without the pre-requisite stability! In this case, I like to use deep pressure (i.e. foam rolling) as opposed to stretching as a way to tell the nervous system to give said muscle a break, or 'reset.' Then we focus on STRENGTHENING, and developing controlled mobility throughout a joint's full range of motion, and optimizing mechanics. This gets that muscle back into a healthy state where it can do its job of controlling movement with less stress and overwork, and subsequently less tension.

A great example of this is the hip with people who practice lots of stretching-based yoga (i.e. yin classes) without much strength and stability work. Their glutes are knotted up, tense, and sore. The patient has usually been stretching their hips for ages, but the tension just won't go away. Patients with these symptoms usually have an exceptional passive range of motion about their hip, but guess what? Minimal strength and control throughout that range. Those glutes are tense because they're trying to stabilize against an inherent lack of control. Getting the patient to roll out their glutes to settle the tension, and then working on developing strength and controlled mobility usually solves the problem.

In other situations, sometimes we will want to fire up and strengthen other supporting muscle groups (i.e. the deep neck flexors in people with lots of upper trap and Lev scrap tension) so those tense muscles don't have to work so hard to begin with. Looking to be free from tension? Book in online to come see me.



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