Why Stretching Is Making The Pain Worse (And what to do instead)

Stretching has so many restorative benefits. But, if you’re suffering from chronic muscle pain, stretching should be used intelligently especially when dealing with sciatica or hip pain. In this post, we’ll look into why stretching hasn’t been providing you with long-term relief, or if it’s been making the pain worse. I’ll give you a few suggestions on how to properly stretch along with video tutorials. It’s important to read through the full post to understand how to effectively stretch without triggering pain.

Why Is Stretching Making The Pain Worse?

Stretching a muscle that is already weak and lengthened can aggravate the muscular or joint pain. If you’ve injured or pulled a muscle, you should also let the pain settle before attempting to stretch. The muscle tissue is very sensitive to triggers and overstretching the muscle can lead to more pain and damage.

I want to highlight two types of muscles here…Tonic muscles which are prone to overactivity and tightness, and phasic muscles which are more likely to weaken and lengthen. Here’s a short list of these muscles:

  • Tonic muscles: Upper trapezius, Quadratus Lumborum, Hamstrings, Hip flexors, Piriformis, TFL.
  • Phasic muscles: Rhomboids, Lower Trapezius, Gluteus Muscles

Stretching becomes an issue when more time is spent stretching the phasic muscles, such as the glutes and lower back muscles (which are more likely to weaken due to our sedentary lifestyle), and less time releasing the tonic muscles, such as the hip flexors complex, which can get extremely tight and drive the hips out of balance. 

It’s important to stretch only the muscles that need to be stretch and stabilize and strengthen the ones that are weak.

Is The Muscle Really Tight?

I know you may be thinking “but my glutes and hips feel tight all the time, are you saying I shouldn’t stretch them?”. And let me quickly answer that…

When a muscle feels tight, it doesn’t mean it’s actually short and needs stretching. A sore muscle can be either short and tight or long and weak. So the fact it feels sore doesn’t tell you it’s indeed short and requires stretching.

Muscles behave like a rubber band when it comes to extensibility. When you release the muscle after stretching (lengthening), it’ll always return to its original length. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be stretching at all. Stretching has its place. It relaxes the nervous system, improves range of motion and can be used to restore proper alignment, but what I’m saying is…

When you’re experiencing pain and you’re using stretching to fix the pain, you need to first figure out if the muscle you’re stretching is shorter than its normal length. This can be identified through static posture and movement assessments. You can also just refer to the list of phasic and tonic muscles (1) to get an idea about which ones are more inclined to tighten.

If a muscle is already weak and elongated, you’re only creating more weakness by further elongating the muscle through stretching. This results in joint instability, and more pain in the long-run. The relief you get from stretching is induced by the stretch reflex and that’s why it’s very short-lived.

Don’t make the mistake of stretching mindlessly and chasing that temporary relief. You can be doing more harm than good if you haven’t assessed the source of the muscle imbalance first and you’re not sure which muscles you should be stretching.

Why Relief Is Only Temporary

When you stretch a muscle, the stretch reflex kicks in to prevent the muscle from tear and injury. This is why the effect of static stretching doesn’t last long. And as you’ve probably noticed, the muscle starts to tighten up shortly after. Too much stretching can weaken the muscle’s ability to contract and that’s why it is recommended to not perform static stretching before exercise.

Stretching has its place for sure as I explained a little while ago. But if you have chronic muscular pain, I highly recommend you start digging a little deeper and look beyond the temporary fixes you’re getting from it. Start assessing for postural and muscular weaknesses that are causing the pain. When your muscles have the right tension, you’ll be able to maintain muscle balance.

How To Effectively Stretch Your Muscles

I’m going to share with you a couple of tutorials soon. But I just want to take a few moments to explain the difference between mobility and stability. You’ve probably heard these terms before. And to get the most out of stretching and avoid creating weakness and instability, it’s important to understand which joints need more mobility and which need more stability…

Joint Mobility vs Stability

The joints in our bodies are all working in synch because the body is a kinetic chain. The shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint), for example, is the most mobile joint in the human body. Other joints like the elbow and knee joints need support and stability. These joints will alternate in movement as we move up from one joint the next:

  • Ankle (mobility)
  • Knees (stability)
  • Hips (mobility)
  • Lower back (stability)
  • Shoulders (mobility)
  • Neck (stability)

You need to keep this in mind when stretching the muscles attached to these joints. If a joint is designed to be more mobile, then chronically tight muscle around that joint will restrict motion and proper movement. Adding load (weight and pressure) will easily lead to injury.

Stretching And Strengthening

You need to always balance stretching with proper strengthening. If you’re always stretching ALL of your muscles (lengthening all of your muscles), you’ll risk developing multiple muscular imbalances, and weakening the muscles that need to support and stabilize the joints they are associated with.

I know it’s a ton of information. I always try to simply things as much as possible because my goal is to educate you so you know what you’re doing at home. But if you have questions or aren’t sure about anything, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below. Now, I want to share a few tutorials with you…

Helpful Muscle Release Tutorials

Below you’ll find a couple of helpful tutorials showing you how to release the hip flexors, hamstrings and TFL muscle properly.

  • Video Tutorial: How to properly stretch the hamstrings

Recommended Programs: The Back Pain Bootcamp

Join The Back Pain Bootcamp

References:

Clark, M., Lucett, S., & Sutton, B. G. NASM essentials of corrective exercise training. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning

  • I need some advise about what exercises are recommended to do besides stretching. It’s waking recommended?
    What excercise machine are good to use in the gym?

    Thank you for your support!

    • Hi Ana!
      Yes absolutely! walking is an amazing low impact exercise. But you want to find your “threshold point” so at what point does it start to hurt? and keep your walks below that point. I also recommend slowing down on constantly stretching and working on correcting muscle imbalances, adding stability to your lower back and hips. You can check out my deep core video workouts on my blog. Just search for deep core.
      you can also look at the deep core mini training it’s only $7 and it helps you build stability in the lower back as well. I don’t use any exercise machines because I like to focus on training my body to move properly and machines just do the work for you and you’re more likely to develop more muscle weaknesses (since you’re not strengthening the deep muscle stabilizers).
      I’ll link below my exercise programs you can have a look at. If you need help with anything you can email me directly at [email protected]

      Programs to stabilize the lumbar spine: https://coachsofiafitness.com/deep-core-training-2/
      The back pain bootcamp: https://coachsofiafitness.com/join-back-pain-bootcamp/

      Stay strong

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