Stretching Exercises for Back Pain & Sciatica – Are They Causing You Long Term Damage?
For as long as I can remember people have been told to stretch whether they are warming up or warming down in order to prevent injuries. For just as long, physiotherapists have been using stretching, along with exercises, as the basis for their treatment of painful conditions.
Everyone has jumped on the band wagon from doctors to personal trainers. Whenever a pain sufferer complains of feeling tight or sore, their therapists will ask whether they have been doing enough stretching and then go on to offer a ‘good’ stretch that will help them.
There are varying opinions on the type of stretching that should be done, stretching exercises that are bad or harmful and more importantly, whether stretching actually does any good at all.
Research conducted previously by physiotherapist Rod Pope of Charles Sturt University in Australia and his colleagues on 2600 Army recruits showed that stretching actually provides no benefit in preventing injuries, and his is not the only study that has reached this conclusion.
Now I’ll grant you that stretching a tight area will provide some temporary relief but what is it actually doing to our body over a long period of time?
A Historical Perspective on Exercise and Stretching
Before I answer and discuss this question, I would like to take you back to where it all started with the exercise craze of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Back in those days’ people didn’t go to gyms or do fitness classes in the same manner that they do today and the topic of stretching was rarely raised because people hardly ever needed it.
The only gymnasiums that existed were run by ex-fighters and trainers for the more serious and dedicated sportspeople where you could use hand weights or punch a heavy bag in a dingy back room somewhere. It wasn’t the place an average person would go to. Other than that, most exercise was confined to organised sports such as tennis, basketball or touch football.
Injuries that people sustained were seen to by their GP and treated with rest and anti-inflammatory drugs. Physiotherapists were mainly used for helping people rehabilitate after surgery or treating the elderly in nursing homes.
When the exercise craze finally did take off and gyms, as we now know them, started to spring up everywhere, people started getting serious injuries that doctors did not have the expertise or experience to treat and so Physiotherapists took on the job because they were pretty much the only option available. This is when stretching became the new buzzword.
The Impact of Stretching on Muscles and Joints
If you ask the layman out there, they will tell you that they imagine that muscles are like lengths of elastic that, when pulled from both ends, stretch as evenly as elastic does. What they do not know is that a muscle works more like a telescope where the sections made up of filaments slide over one another. This requires ample lubrication and a healthy function to be able to properly lengthen through its range of movement.
At least 90% of people have muscle tissue that is damaged, stressed, congested, unhealthy or overworked. The result is an inability of the muscles to respond to stretching exercises the way it is supposed to, without putting most of the pressure on the connective tissue around the joints.
Quality of life is enhanced by maintaining a good range of motion in the joints. However, if you develop pain in the body where does it usually manifest? In the joints the most common pains experienced in the body are knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, elbow, wrist or ankle pain etc.
However, when this pain is investigated a little more closely there is often no visible damage to the structure of the joint. The medical diagnosis will usually be described as an ‘ inflammation’ or ‘tendonitis’ for which rest, anti-inflammatory or cortisone injections are prescribed.
In fact, most medical specialists will tell you they are not sure why pain is felt in a joint that shows no signs of injury when scanned. It may be found that the joint is tracking incorrectly or that there is an irritated nerve, ligament or tendon. If the pain persists for too long, some people are told that the pain is all ‘in their head’. Others are operated on with arthroscopy’s so the specialist can ‘have a look’ because they can’t figure out what the problem is, but regardless, everyone is told the same – ‘do more stretching’.
While some of these injuries may temporarily respond to a bit of ice and stretching, most will linger and will require constant stretching, strapping or strengthening before they eventually subside. What most people don’t know though is that the reason these injuries eventually settle, despite all the stretching, is because the body slowly compensates for the injured muscle(s). The rate at which the joint recovers is in direct relation to the improvement of that muscle(s).
As we get older, the body slows down the compensation process and the pain becomes chronic, forcing us to avoid any activities that irritate the joint, tendon, ligament or nerve. If, however, one identifies the problem earlier on and restores length and function to the affected muscles and joints, the pain can disappear overnight as mysteriously as it came.
Stretching does not deliver on what it promises to. This is evidenced by the fact that chronic pain is an epidemic amongst the masses of people who exercise and stretch and stretch and stretch as advised by their doctor, physiotherapist, other therapist or trainer, with no result.
If you do some research into stretching you will see it gets quite complicated – there is dynamic, ballistic, active, passive, static, isometric and PNF stretching or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation which is really a technique combining passive and isometric stretching.
Even the process of what happens in the muscle when we stretch is quite scientific, the complicated anatomy we have that facilitates a stretch and the control and movement that is required to ensure an effective stretch is very intricate so, suffice it to tell you that in a perfect world it might work, but certainly not in today’s world where stress, junk food and toxins ensure that muscles do not behave in the manner that they are supposed to.
The Impact on the Body When Stretching is done over a Long Period of Time
Which brings us back to our original question of what happens to the body when we do all this stretching over a long period of time. The answer is multi-faceted:
Firstly, as the connective tissue at the joint is the weakest point, we end up stretching the ligament (the small fibrous tissues that play an important role in the support of the joint against dislocation and excessive, incorrect movement). Over time this constant stretching of the ligament causes it to become loose and weakened. This changes the important relationship that the ligament has with the muscles that also support that joint.
A stretched, loose ligament never returns to its original length no matter how much time has passed and especially if it is continually being stretched.
The person doing the stretching will undoubtedly feel ‘looser’ in the joint, but that only makes them more susceptible to injuries like dislocation or more serious joint or ligament damage.
A hyper mobile joint might work well in ballet or for martial arts kicks, but it does not serve someone involved in sports such as basketball, soccer, football or netball well. This is especially true for sports where there is direct body contact or where they are changing direction quickly.
If the ligaments are not providing support for a joint, it is left to the muscles to pick up the slack and that causes them to become overworked. When they are overworked, they become tighter. Paradoxically, this then makes one feel like you need to stretch even more. The situation becomes exacerbated until you have loose hyper mobile joints and muscles that are contracted and won’t let go.
The body has its own intelligence and has the ability to know when a joint is weak or unstable. By contracting the muscles, it protects itself and strengthens against the joint being dislocated. Over time this constant state of contraction affects the correct functioning of the muscles, circulation and nerve co-ordination, which in turn causes the muscle to become even weaker. At this point, the chances of dislocation, ligament, tendon or joint damage become even greater.
So as you can see, if you think about it logically, there is a valid reason why stretching is not as good for you as, perhaps, you have been led to believe. Long term stretching is actually very bad for the ligaments, muscles and joints.
How do I know all of this you may ask? As q qualified, experienced Myotherapist who has performed a lot of deep tissue massage work since 1988, I have been able to compare the patients who have bodies subjected to constant stretching and those who do not. It is really easy to feel the very obvious difference between them – loose sloppy joints and contracted belly muscles that do not respond to the usual techniques I successfully use to release these muscle contractions.
The chronic stretchers actually have more injuries than the non-stretchers. As soon as I get them to stop stretching, (which is like getting someone off a drug), the ‘niggles’ disappear and the injuries become less frequent.
What is the solution then?
Warm up and warm down very well using ROM (Range of Motion) exercises before you any form of vigorous activity to keep your joints and muscles as healthy as possible. If you really want to stretch be sure to do it as part of a full body program such as yoga where you stretch as you exercise while keeping your muscles warm and engaged.
Eat a balanced healthy diet and introduce supplementation if you are very active. This ensures that your muscles and tissues stay strong and are supported when you participate in your activity.
Keep your muscles and your body maintained by getting a full body, deep tissue massage and seek out a therapist whose treatment will restore length and function to your muscles.
For a complete exercise program that gives you all the benefits of exercise and ‘stretching’ and which also prevents and treats pain at the same time, take a look at the SLM Yoga DVD (either on its own or as part of the online self treatment program for sciatica and back pain sufferers). GO HERE