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Stretching to Prevent and Relieve Pain
We never insist enough on the benefits of a good stretching routine. With our society focusing on how to obtain the perfect body, we seem to dedicate more time, energy and money on how we look rather than how we feel. And one day, we find ourselves aching, stiff and unable do all the movements we took for granted. Our health always seems much more valuable after we lose it; the same goes with our flexibility.
Stretching is not new. It is actually one of the most natural impulses. Animals, cats, dogs even birds stretch. We stretch as we get out of bed. We stretch after sitting at our desks. We stretch when we feel stressed, tired, relieved or even happy. We stretch because it feels good.
With our busy schedules and lifestyles, we are becoming more pressured, and stressed, and we forget about the great benefits of stretching. Aging doesn’t help neither. As we get older, we build tight armors protecting our rigid bodies against all the mental, emotional and physical stress in our lives.
All of us know that stretching is an important part of training in any sport, yet many of us still ignore the rule. Traditional Thai massage is a lot about stretching. In my Thai massage practice, many people come to me who have been weight training for years and cannot lift their shoulders any longer. Their muscles have got bigger but shorter and they feel tight. They can no longer sit on the floor with a straight back, or bend to tie their shoes without having to sit. They decide often very late that they definitely need some help with their lost flexibility.
Why do we seem to forget or skip our basic human and natural need for stretching? Perhaps, because unlike body building and weight training it does not seem to sculpt our body to perfection.
Most aerobic and strength training programs cause our muscles to contract and flex. For proper balance and long-term health, we need to stretch those muscle fibers back.
Even for those of us who don’t like to commit to a sport, our muscles get tighter with aging. This unfortunately is a natural and normal process. We get up out of bed feeling achy and sore with stiff neck and shoulders and a tight lower back. Our bodies are screaming “do something for me, something good …stretch me.”
Expanding your possibilities
There are many ways to stretch. Stretch on your own, at a gym, or at home. You can attend a stretching, yoga or pilates class or you can get a personal trainer to help you with your stretching. You can also try a thai massage therapist who will first release muscle tensions using particular techniques, and then will stretch you.
Create a chain reaction in your muscles
On the physical level, stretching increases your flexibility. Flexible muscles not only improve your daily physical performance but will help you with tasks, such as, bending to tie your shoe laces, lifting packages, or hurrying to catch a bus. Stretching improves your range of motion in your joints. It keeps you in better balance and less prone to injuries, especially from falls as you age. Stretching improves posture. Weak muscles are strengthened and tight muscles are lengthened. Stretching increases circulation and blood flow to your muscles, which speeds up muscular recovery, improving cleansing, lubrication, nourishing and rejuvenation. Stretching releases scar tissues (fibrotic tissues). Stretching keeps your body aligned and in balance.
Stretching enables energy to flow freely through your body and spine, and meridian lines. Stretching helps realign muscle fibers, nerves and fascia (connective tissue surrounding muscles, bones, and joints). Stretching helps with insomnia and nervous legs syndrome, especially if you stretch in the evening.
Stretching does have an esthetic effect on how you look! Stretching helps elongate muscles (think of ballerinas, their amazing strength in their muscular but long and elegant legs). It straightens a poor posture by elongating the pectoralis major, elongating your neck and bringing your shoulders down.
Stretching will help you feel
• Clear and calmer
• More grounded
• Fully alive
Stretching facilitates focusing less on your aches and pains and limitations and gives you a sense of freedom and empowerment.
The problem of scar tissues
Scar tissue can develop because of acute trauma to the tissues or repetitive stress injuries. Scar tissue formation is a normal response to injury, but excessive scarring reduces function and contributes to chronic pain and limitation of movement.
Injured muscles usually heal by forming scar tissues at the injury site. The final scar is often dense and inflexible, limiting pain free motion. To restore pain free motion, the scar tissues must be modified in some way. Many physical therapists will still rely on treatment, such as, ice, heat, ultrasound, and electrical muscle stimulation. These approaches are often effective in the early treatment of trauma but can do nothing once the scar tissues have fully formed. Some type of manual therapy like massage or myofascial release is often necessary to effectively reduce the scar tissues and restore pain free motion. In that case soft facilitated stretching used with manual soft tissue therapy will increase the likelihood of safely and effectively restoring motion to injured tissues.
Note that stretching and soft tissue massages can only be given during the chronic phase. During the acute phase, the best advice is to take the time to let the injury rest.
Examples of important stretches
It is important to focus on your hips and legs
(to help the knees), which are the two largest and most important and vulnerable joints in your body, to prevent injury. Stretching these joints is a great alternative to high impact aerobic exercise that often can put too much stress on the hips and knees.
The psoas muscle is a muscle that attaches to the lower spine. It is often ignored and can create many aches and pains in the lower back and the groin area. The piriformis is also a very important muscle to stretch. It is a flat muscle almost pyramid in shape that lies almost parallel to the gluteus medius beneath the gluteus maximus muscle. When it gets too tight, it irritates the sciatic nerve that runs in that area, causing pain in the buttocks and along the sciatic nerve. Approximately 15% of the population is prone to developing this type of sciatica. Many strength and aerobic exercises specifically focus on the buttock area but few people are aware how much they need to stretch the piriformis muscle.
Many people stretch incorrectly, believing in the adage no pain, no gain. Stretching must be completed comfortably to be effective. If you stretch until it hurts, the body’s natural response will be to tighten up to prevent any more lengthening and possibly injury to the muscle being stretched. I advocate stretching the muscle up just to the point at which you are able to feel some resistance to further stretching but no big discomfort.
Remember that flexibility varies from day to day and from joint to joint. It is important to remember that stretching is not a contest against your body. Honour your body. Take each day as it comes and stretch as best as you can. We cannot measure improvement in flexibility daily but we are better off looking at our gains over the long term. Last and not least, you don’t have to be flexible to stretch!
Stretching will make you feel wonderful, and beautiful.
Essentials for Self-Stretching
• Warm up! Walk, jump or bicycle your legs up while lying down on a hard surface for 10 minutes.
• If you are not used to stretching start with dynamic stretches by moving into the stretch (no bouncing) and coming back.
• Start with just a few stretches and build up.
• Get a good start with information from a physiotherapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor.
• Try a Thai massage session and get connected to your body. Experience what a good stretch can do for you and get a sense of which body parts need stretching most.
• Buy or borrow a book/videotape on how to stretch.
Keep it simple first.
• Never bounce into your stretch.
• Start with gentle stretches.
• Isolate and feel the particular muscle you want to stretch, the rest of the body should not be aching.
• Don’t lock your joints.
• Stretching should not hurt. You should feel the stretch but be able to keep it. Otherwise, back off.
• One side is always tighter than the other. Don’t worry, with your efforts your body will balance itself.
• Maintain the stretch for at least 30 seconds or 4 deep breaths.
• You don’t have to stretch in the morning. I recommend stretching in the evening: you have more time, your body is already warmed up from the day’s activities and stretching will facilitate relaxation, get rid of the tensions and stress and induce a good sleep.
• Never roll your neck, especially if you are older.
• Don’t overdo. You’ll lose all the benefits.
• Keep breathing during your stretches. I encourage my clients to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth as I find it more stress releasing.
• Honor your body while you stretch. Stretching is not a competition against your will or to please your facilitator or therapist.
• The day after stretching you may feel sore. This is OK. Keep stretching.
• You will notice results in about a month or up to 3 months, if you have never stretched before or if you are 50+.
Anne Clossen is a licensed Holistic Practitioner in Toronto.
She is a certified Traditional Thai Massage Practitioner,
Holistic Practitioner and Reflexologist. She is fascinated by body mechanics and likes to help her clients become actively and fully aware of their body, and the body/mind connection.
Anne can be reached at: 416- 939-2570.