Everyone has heard the speech before: “stretch to prevent injury during exercise”. However, no one seems to explain further how stretching can actually help your body stay healthy, or even that stretching can be harmful in some situations.
The most important issue to know about stretching is when NOT to do it. The old adage of “stretch before you exercise” is a slight misconception, as it can actually cause injuries rather than prevent them if done improperly. The only time muscles should be stretched is when they are warm; that is to say, when they have been properly warmed by either mild exercise (or moderate exercise if you don’t live in warm and sunny San Diego) or an outside heat source such as a hot tub, shower, or sauna. Imagine, for a moment, that your muscles are like a towel soaked with water. If that wet cloth is warmed up it becomes very flexible and stretchy, but put that same cloth in the freezer and it becomes stiff and brittle. The same idea applies to your actual muscles – if you stretch “cold” muscles that are stiff and brittle you can cause damage to your muscles in the arena of muscle strains and micro-tears. Strains and micro-tears can and usually do cause scar tissue buildup inside the muscle tissue, making the muscle sticky and, effectively, less flexible. Practically applied, this means that muscles should not be stretched before exercise; stretching should be done both after a moderate warm-up and after exercise is completed.
Now that the issue of when to stretch is covered, now we need to know why. Stretching, in effect, lengthens the muscle tissue, giving it a greater range of motion. As we have discussed in a previous article, muscles and bones have a symbiotic relationship and constantly affect one another, for better or worse. If the muscles attached to the bones in your body are tight an strained they have the power to pull bones out of alignment to the point of partial or full dislocation. Conversely, if the muscles attached to the bones in your body are loose and supple they can work in symphony without causing any disruption in the skeleton’s structure. Since stretching can keep muscles loose and supple can prevent bone misalignment it can therefore prevent potential pain; misaligned bones can pinch nerves and cause further muscle discomfort. For example, if your hamstring muscles are tight (which most people’s are) they can pull hard on your pelvic bone, causing it to shift downward, which in turn may cause the sciatic nerve to become impinged, causing the incredibly painful condition Sciatica.
All of the secondary effects aside, many people don’t know how painful tight muscles themselves can be, and how much stretching can help! Despite the fact most medical doctors pass off muscle pain as an inconvenience it can actually be a serious, even debilitating experience. Chronically tight muscles can also become weak and susceptible to intense muscle spasms due to over exhaustion. In the end all of these conditions can be prevented with a daily stretching routine, focusing on your particular problem spots. A Chiropractic consultation can help discover which muscles in your body are tight, as well as providing stretching outlines and instructions. It is also important to note that not all muscle spasms can be stretched into health – sometimes further intervention is required to reduce inflammation and provide some muscle movement before stretching will help – and there are conditions where stretching is ill advised, such as with a disc bulge. Again, a Chiropractic consultation can clear up the cause of any muscle pain experienced and determine if stretching is right for your condition.