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1st Sep

2012

What We Should Know About Stretching

There is an ongoing debate about stretching as part of athletic activity, and common misconceptions about the role of stretching in rehabilitation of injuries. However, most experts now agree that some form of stretching following athletic activity is probably beneficial.

When we suffer an injury or episode of pain, a reflex causes increased tension in certain muscles, which become shortened and often painful. This is referred to as muscle guarding. If we stretch a guarded muscle, which is already more sensitive to stretch due to the reflex, it often fights us and becomes even more tight and painful.

A more effective treatment is e.g. soft tissue mobilization and joint mobilization to inhibit this neurological response and address the cause of the pain, receive medical treatment for the same purpose, and perform pain-free active motions and muscle contractions to supply oxygen to the deprived muscle, and improve its circulation and supply of nutrients.

Prolonged static stretching can produce a temporary slight lengthening of the collagen fibers in the muscle fascia and tendon, however this also weakens the internal structure of these fibers. Therefore, most experts agree that such stretching is best to perform after an athletic activity or workout, where we will no longer be subjected to active strains.

Prior to activities, it is best to warm up to increase the tissue circulation and temperature. Dynamic stretching, or repeated active joint movements through full range of motion is typically recommended, and performed by athletes, which has been found to increase the muscle strength afterwards, whereas static stretching temporarily decreases the strength. Some sports, which require extremes of motion, such as gymnastics, dance and martial arts, may require some static stretching as well, following the warm up.

After an acute or sub-acute injury to the muscle or tendon, such as a muscle strain or tear, tendinitis, or surgical repair, static stretching is not to be performed, as it can further compromise the collagen in the muscle-tendon. Unfortunately, this is still being performed in sports and health care, which undoubtedly will prolong a person’s recovery.

What such an injured muscle or tendon needs instead, is repetitive motion to lubricate the collagen fibers, and build new and stronger fibers in the tissue. The muscle/tendon can be stimulated with lengthening, or eccentric contractions, which produces thicker and stronger collagen fibers, and a functionally longer muscle which can tolerate greater strains.

Today, there is reasonably good research evidence that pre-activity stretching does not prevent injuries, whereas eccentric muscle training does. One such large recent study showed a 65% reduction of hamstring strains in elite soccer players after including eccentric muscle training, as compared to those who did not, whereas flexibility and static hamstring stretching resulted in no reduction in strains.

Since this is a topic that probably affects most of us from time to time, please feel free to forward this letter to anyone who could be interested. Enjoy the last part of our beautiful summer and for those of you who enjoy winter sports, don’t forget to start your preparatory conditioning training.

With best wishes for continued good health,

Gunnar

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