How does stretching help with soft tissue complaints?
When there is injury to the musculoskeletal system, muscles tighten up due to a protective mechanism so stretching can help maintain or increase range of motion at a joint and loosen the soft tissue as a longer muscle is generally looser and has lower tone than a tighter muscle. This can take pressure off the joint and decrease pain to an injured site.
There are four main types of stretching:
1. Static stretching is where we get to the point of stretch and hold that stretch for anywhere from 20 to 40 seconds, depending on the site, and then slowly come out of the stretch. The idea is that muscles relax while they are being stretched.
2. Contract-Relax stretching, sometimes referred to as PNF or MET, involves an initial onset of stretch at a particular range of movement for a muscle, contracting the muscle statically (without movement) towards shortening for 4-6 seconds. Once that static contraction ceases, the stretch is taken further into the new onset of stretch. We normally do this three times and it's a very fast way to increase rom and muscle length. The three terms for Contract-Relax stretching seem to be used interchangeably as different modalities have adopted each other's names for similar techniques, although they do theoretically vary in nature slightly. Read more about different types of Contract-Relax stretching here >
3. Dynamic stretching is slightly more aggressive than other forms of stretching, but is highly efficient and effective. It involves gently bouncing 10% past the initial stretch and then bouncing back out. So the stretch is bounced 10% past and 10% less than the initial rest phase and over 20-30 slow bounces, the initial stretch position will increase. By the time you have finished, there could be a large increase in range of motion. This is particularly helpful with powerful athletes where a more aggressive stretch is needed.
4. Stretching can also involve nerves. A common nerve stretch is a sciatic nerve stretch where we do a hamstring-type stretch with a straight knee and take the hip joint through three planes to wind up the sciatic nerve: hip flexion, hip adduction and hip internal rotation while lying on back. This type of stretching is best done later in the day as nerves can be quite sensitive to stretching first thing in the morning.
These stretches can be used on a wide range of areas. With sensitive areas around the spine, for instance the neck, we would normally use a very gentle version of contract-relax, whereas for a strong muscle, like a quadricep, a dynamic stretch or contract-relax stretch can be more helpful.