If you follow me on social media (if you don’t, you should!), you might have noticed that I recently talked about the fact that stretching is overrated and that tensions are defences. I never said it is useless or that people should not use stretching. I said it is overrated, especially when it comes to reducing pain.
Stretching seems to be a very normal and innate thing that us, mammals, do. Dogs stretch, cats stretch, babies stretch. Usually though, dogs, babies and cats do not seem to stretch for half an hour like human adults do as soon as they feel a tension or some pain.
I do not count the number of times a week I talk with patients who pretends that stretching solved their problem. The discussion always unfold the same way:
Patient:”I injured my shoulder 3 months ago and had a lot of pain.”
Me: “How did you solve that?”
Patient: “Oh I stretch everyday and I’m fine now”
Me: “What happens if you don’t stretch.”
Patient: “The pain comes back.”
[Me thinking] So the problem is not solved
Why do we think this way about tensions and stretching?
I do not blame patients for that. I used to think like that too until I discovered something different. Patients usually get that way of thinking from their family, from mainstream media or even worse…from other therapists. And unfortunately, I believe that it is due to a lack of philosophy. A lack of reflection about what a body is, what pain is, and what a tension is. So lets try to see if we can think in a different way about tensions and pain. Who knows, maybe questioning our thoughts could lead us to change what we do in order to decrease a problem?
NB: In this article, I will talk both about muscle tensions and pain. They are not the same things as you can have tensions and no pain, or pain and no tensions. But they both indicate a reaction from the body and I will over simplify for the sake of this article. Also, there are cases that do actually require stretching. I am talking about most patients who come to see me for an osteopathic treatment.
What tensions are
A few months ago, I indicated that in my opinion, patients are not muppets. As I mentioned in this article, patients are often considered (and often consider themselves) as machines. Muscles pull, bones get out of alignment etc. Therefore a fall can block a joint and twist the pelvis, which would lead to some back pain. I remember reading a post from a pilates teacher saying that uneven pavement can lead to a misalignment (do not worry, you will be fine). No mention is made of the nervous system. Nerves are present as wires that can be pinched. That is all. Obviously, if we consider the body this way, we might feel like pulling on muscles that are too tight in order to make them more flexible, and stretching seems quite logical.
But can we maybe make a few steps toward another system. The nervous system is not exclusively a bunch of wires. It receives information and sends messages. And it does that every single seconds. Think about it: You go outside, the temperature changes, your body adapts to the environment. You meet someone you like, your body reacts. You eat spicy food, your body reacts. Same thing if you are pinched, your body reacts. Or if watch a sad movie, your body reacts. Etc.
In an extremely simplified version, your nerves send information, your brain gets those information, and analyses the situation based on everything it knows: What happened to you in you past, what you believe might happen to you, what the physio or the osteopath told you happened to you… After checking on the archives, your brain decides what the best answer is.
Tensions are defences: an example
So let say you bend forwards to grab an object on the floor. Your brain gets the information and analyses the situation. It knows that 10 years ago you did the same thing and it ended up being painful. It knows that you should flex your knees and tense your core as everybody’s been telling you since you were a kid. Your nervous system knows that based on your former osteopath, your back is weak. It knows that your dad had a lot of back pain, and that your neighbour lost its job because of a back pain that never healed.
It knows all that, and maybe that simple bending forward action could be considered by your brain as a potential danger. The answer it might decide to offer to that situation could be to protect you. Maybe it will generate pain and maybe limit your movement by creating a tension.
What does it change for stretching?
Well, the main difference is the fact that tension is not a cause anymore. It is an effect, it is a defence, it is a protection. It is not here to bother you, it is here to protect you as your nervous system believes you need it. Then if you want to change a situation, why would you spend so much time focusing on a consequence? If your brain decided that a part of your body needs to be protected, what do you plan on achieving by pulling on it?
An example I often give to my patients is to think about someone carrying a heavy object in their right hand. The object is the cause. As a needed consequence, a tension appears in the arm in order to lift up the object. Stretching a tension is the equivalent of pulling on the muscles of the arm. It might make you feel better for a short while, but if you still carry the object, you will need to create that tension again and again. Stretching your back might help you for a short period, but if your brain still believes your back needs to be protected, then it will keep on tensing up muscles.
Now what happens if you can find the heavy object and drop it? Wouldn’t the muscles of the arm relax on their own as the tension becomes unnecessary? What happens if you can show your brain that there is no danger? Yeahhhh no more tension!
And that is why I believe that stretching is really overrated when it comes to decreasing tensions or pain. It is not useless, it might help you to manage your pain, it might be trendy on Instagram and help you to get more followers which is totally respectable. But when it comes to reducing pain, it will not make such a big difference. At least, maybe we could spend a bit less time talking about it.
What is the alternative to stretching?
A great alternative to stretching would for example be to work with people such as Angie Stirland who is a corrective and functional movement specialist. You can check on her work by liking her facebook page or following her on instagram (She does online sessions!).
On a side note, this way of thinking changes the way you explain osteopathy too. Instead of pulling on muscles and moving bones, you communicate with a nervous system. If you want to try something different, you can try to hold space for the patient. And if you want to learn how to do it, I can teach you.
About Jules RampalMeditation teacher and osteopath
I am an online meditation teacher and an osteopath currently working in Cavan, Ireland. My courses are for people who want to learn meditation with guided sessions, and for therapists who want to delve into the way they feel and the knowledge they can gather for their clients.
Learn more about me here