Written by Luke Anderson – Sydney West Sports Medicine
To Stretch or not to Stretch? That is the question.
Stretching has been one of the ‘go to’ treatments for physios, doctors and just about anyone who knows anything about anything since just about forever. I can’t count the number of clients I see who tell me they’ve tried to fix their problems by just “stretching it out”. Of these clients, some say that stretching relieves their pain but others often tell me that stretching either didn’t make a difference or that is even made it worse. So what do we do? Do we stretch or not stretch?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for this. There are some conditions that stretching can help with but there are also times when stretching will just make it worse.
Don’t Stretch Tendons
If you have any sort of tendon injury then stretching is it is just about the worst thing you can do. An unhappy tendon gets angrier under passive tension. So if you have Achilles tendinopathy, tennis elbow, jumpers knee or the like, please do not stretch it. You will stop it from getting better.
Don’t Stretch Acute Muscle Strains or Ligament Sprains
A lot of acute injuries can be aggravated by stretching too. If you’ve just torn a hamstring, a calf or a quad, your body is trying to create scar tissue to repair that torn muscle but every time you stretch it you’re just pulling the tear apart again. It’s the same situation with more severe sprains. Scar tissue is being used to repair the ligaments to help stabilise the joint but if you don’t let it form and get nice and tight you can end up with an unstable joint and a higher risk of re-injury. It’s like trying to get your seatbelt to let go when it locks up; pulling and pulling on it isn’t going to help. Stretching shoulder only be added to your rehab towards the end and should be pain-free.
Do Stretch Uninjured Tight Muscles
On the other side of the coin, there are certain conditions that can respond quite well to stretching. Joint, back and neck pain can often be helped by stretching the tight muscles surrounding the area. How many times has stretching relieved a stiff neck in the morning?
Just feeling tight? Sure, stretching is probably fine for you. The key is regular, gentle stretching for longer durations. Stretching should not be painful and the best way to make lasting differences to muscle length is to stretch longer not harder.
Don’t Just Stretch To Warm Up
Stretching is NOT a warm up. In fact, ‘stretch and hold’ stretches should not be done before exercise at all. Holding stretches cause tiny muscle tears throughout the muscle which essentially weakens the muscle. So why would you make yourself weaker before you play? These days we advise movement-based stretching where you move your joints through their full range of movement needed for the exercise you are going to do. That, maybe some foam roller work is all you should need and something easy that gets the heart rate up and makes you sweat is the essentials of a basic warm-up.
At the end of the day, if you are not sure if stretching is going to harm or help your injury then the best thing to do is get it checked out by a professional because stretching is only one possible part of a comprehensive rehab program and it’s probably not the most important thing for you to be doing anyway!