Stretching Out the Pain: Feels Good But is it Good FOR You?

Don't StretchIf you stretch that muscle in spasm, you are basically telling it that the tightening over-reaction is indeed justified.  The reason muscles grab and get tight is because they believe they are protecting you from disaster.  Usually that “disaster” is a lengthening, or twisting or compressing stress occuring somewhere in the spine and detected by our muscular early warning system.  Unfortunately when we intentionally stretch the muscle in distress, we are creating exactly one or all of these problems that our poor muscle thinks it’s helping us with in the first place.

Not long after you’re done with the stretch, that muscle will go right back to being in spasm again because it just received confirmation from us that something is unstable and it had better hold on tight in case that happens again!  Stretching the things that hurt actually only feeds the fire and gives the tissues another reason to be and stay inflamed which is what we experience as painful tension.[1]

Another potential problem in severe cases, is that the tight muscle may in fact be acting as a splint in an attempt to keep us from doing more serious damage. If that’s the case, then stretching could result in serious consequences because the temporary loosening of that muscular splint might take away the main safety mechanism keeping full impact of a sprain or – worst case scenario – a fracture we didn’t know was there, at bay.  Of course this would be an extreme instance and if you have a fracture even if you didn’t yet know it – you wouldn’t be calmly reading this blog.

Naturally you might be wondering:  “Why does the stretch feel so good then?”

As it turns out there’s a very good reason. Because of how we are wired, it is easier to overwhelm the brain with information about a sensation of stretch rather than pain.  Nerves that carry pain sensation to the brain are about five times smaller in diameter than the ones that carry stretch sensation. [i] It’s like the difference between a five lane super highway and a dirt country road.  The highway will always move much more traffic and much more quickly.  So, because stretch sensation moves along the super highway, it dominates.  Pain can only move as fast as that one lane little dirt road.  By the time pain makes it up to the brain, if there’s stretch happening at the same time, the brain is already full of stretch sensation and that’s all we feel. Because of this phenomenon, when we create a stretch sensation in a muscle that hurts, we temporarily turn off the pain.

This is just one of many examples in life of how what feels good is definitely not always good for you.  Stretching a muscle that hurts is just another feel-good quick fix not unlike the mechanism behind having a cocktail to relax or a cup of coffee to wake up.  They all work to a degree but can have unintended consequences and aren’t getting to the root of the problem.  They can also be habit forming long after the behavior stops working.

There are more effective long term options that will be explored in Sections II and III: After the Fire – Repair and Rebuilding and Fire Prevention Planning respectively.


[1] None of this applies for the large scale calf and foot cramping that can happen in the middle of the night.  this sort of charley-horse spasm needs to be stretched!  Cramping is completely different from the tightness at play with everyday pain.


[i] Muscle Pain: Understanding the Mechanisms (Eds.) S. Mense; R.D. Gerwin 2010 XIII 323 p. 94, Chapter 2 Table 2.1 Fiber Types in a Muscle Nerve.

[Photo Credit: Fotolia]

The information provided in this blog is in no way intended to and should not be used to substitute for individualized medical advice. 

Please consult a health care provider for the proper treatment of your pain.

“Every Body's Guide to Everyday Pain,” “Return to Health,” “Return to Health Press,” and accompanying logos and domain names are trademarks of Return to Health, P.S. and Dr. Ya-Ling J. Liou.

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