To Stretch or Not To Stretch?

This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions that crops up in our clinic discussions with our clients and the answer (unfortunately) isn't simple...but can at least be a little simplified.

On my latest session in clinic I was asked the same question from 3 different clients all with different areas of the body involved and all required different advice. They had each developed pain in certain muscles and had different  instincts to stretch, rest and strengthen, each with different results.

Muscle pain can occur for a variety of reasons but for now it's important to highlight the reasoning behind stretching and strengthening to ease a pain.

It's a simple comparison, but if we compare a muscle to an elastic band and imagine a muscle having the ability to lengthen and shorten we have our first reasons for pain.

A muscle that has shortened too much through excessive efforts can be overly tight and produce pain, but so also can a muscle that has lengthened and weakened through similar excessive efforts.

Stretching a muscle that has developed pain through either shortening or lengthening may well have a similar feel of "stretching the pain" but will produce significantly different results.

Stretching a "tightness" (shortened muscle) should feel like you have reduced range of movement compared with stretching the muscle on the opposite side of the body, and should slowly ease through repeated stretching, with a steady improvement in range and a return to normal function.

Stretching a "tautness" (lengthened muscle) however, may feel similar in the short-term but will most likely result in recurrent pain, further weakness and a feeling that you are developing an increase in range compared to the other side.

So, as simple as this advice goes, if you're gaining an increased range of movement or flexibility in a muscle by stretching it, but ultimately not resolving your pain, then stop, as the muscle is often more in need of a strengthening program and further stretching may result in further damage.

Hamstring (back of the thigh), adductor (inner thigh) and calf muscles including the achilles tendon area, as well as back and neck muscles are all common areas of symptomatic "tightness or tautness" and if not resolving with simple stretches should be considered as an area requiring strengthening.

A recurrent pain that never seems to completely clear with stretches is a good clue that a more specific program may need to be put in place.

This small but important piece of advice I would like to pass on to you should hopefully prevent you from worsening a condition which possibly needed less stretching and more strengthening...but if you're in any doubt, book in for an assessment and we'll set you on the right path!

About Craig Wilson

BSc (hons) Physiotherapy MCSP HCPC Craig trained as a Physiotherapist at Southampton University, graduating in 1996. He has had an extensive career across the UK, working in the NHS, the private sector and in a multitude of sporting environments. He brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the clinic and has completed post-graduate courses in the analysis of movement dysfunctions, sports injury treatment, sports massage, dynamic taping and acupuncture and attends conferences on running performance. Craig has a special interest in the treatment of spinal problems, running rehabilitation and biomechanical analysis and has a reputation for finding the cause and solution for complex problems which many had previously felt untreatable. Craig thrives on helping people with problems that stop them performing at their best. He now has a personal passion for long-distance running and has competed in many marathons and ultra-distance races and has plans to be running until someone forces him to stop. "With over 20 years Physiotherapy experience no matter how complex your problem, I am committed to helping find a solution."