When an athlete is injured one of the first things they ask me is “What stretches can I do” as if the reason they were injured was due to a lack of flexibility. The last 20 years of sports medicine research has dispelled the myth that stretching prevents injury but that does not mean that stretching may not HELP you once you are injured. Notice, they are not the same thing. For amateurs who might read “Google research” the snippets they are exposed to seem to intimate that stretching will not help….this is because in the medical research it has been shown to not be a factor in PREVENTING injury and may in face decrease performance in some instances. However, when you suffer a muscle, tendon, ligament or joint injury it is common to have a secondary reaction known as “muscle splinting”. Muscle splinting is your bodies normal reaction to injury whereby it neurologically causes muscle spasm, shortening and hypertonicity of the involved and surrounding muscles to protect and inhibit you from damaging yourself further.
There are different forms of stretching that can be helpful. Most people are familiar with static stretching. This is the type of stretching where you lengthen the muscle and hold yourself in a fixed position for a period of time. Ballistic stretching is the type where the muscle is stretched and there is rapid, forceful movement. There is also controlled dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching stretches a muscle gently while the joint is taken through a full or partial range of motion. For the purposes of this article we will focus on Static stretching as that is the most commonly performed and prescribed stretching.
The problem with stretching is not necessarily the stretching itself but the variables involved with stretching. For example; how long do you have to hold a stretch for it to be effective? How many times per day do you have to do the stretch in order for it to be effective? At what point am I not stretching intensely enough? At what point am I over-stretching and causing more damage? These are all important variables that need to be addressed if you are going to stretch effectively for your injury. We will categorize these variables into;
Please realize that not all injuries and conditions will respond to stretching and some may even be worse for it. A good example of this would be an Medial Collateral Ligament Tear in the knee. The Medial Collateral Ligament or MCL purpose is to prevent excessive internal rotation at your knee joint. Tearing of the MCL results in Quadriceps muscle splinting in your body’s effort to protect the joint and long term instability to your knee joint as the MCL’s primary job as a ligament is to provide stability and prevent excessive range of motion. Another common injury that stretching would not be inappropriate for would be a heel spur. Heel spur syndrome can mimic plantar fasciitis and while plantar fasciitis will respond well to proper stretching a heel spur will often be aggravated by the exact same stretches!
In the next article we will tackle the rehabilitation principle of massage, self-massage, foam rolling, sticking and more. In the meantime if you are going to stretch make sure to not do too much, too little or the wrong kind!