Avoid These 3 Stretching Mistakes and Reduce Chronic Pain
Discover how to use stretching properly to reduce chronic pain and improve your freedom of movement.
by Brad Walker | First Published July 3, 2013 | Updated May 23, 2021
“I have this intense pain in my upper back and neck, right between my shoulder blades. I’ve had it for years and I’ve seen doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists and no one has been able to get rid of it for any length of time. What’s the best stretch I can do for my upper back?”
Apparently, someone had told her that I was the guy she needed to see to get a “good stretch” for her upper back problem.
I told her that no one singe stretch was going to fix all her upper back pain, but I could show her a simple stretch that would give her some relief. And that we could talk after the conference if she would like me to put together a more extensive stretching routine for her.
She was keen to see the stretch I had to offer so I started to show her a simple chest stretch that would help to open up her chest and shoulders, which would take some of the stress and tension off her upper back. Well…
She looked at me with an almost angry look on her face and said… “THE PAIN IS IN MY BACK, NOT MY CHEST!”
I took a deep breath, and as calmly as I could, tried to explain to her that while the pain may have been in her back it was the tension in her chest and shoulders that was the major contributor to her back pain. And continuing to do stretches for her back would only make it worse.
As we parted company she promised that she would try the stretch, but I got the feeling she wasn’t happy with my suggestion, and I’m guessing she went looking for another solution to her back pain.
So what can we learn from this about treating long term, chronic pain with stretching exercises? And what mistakes was this lady making?
Transcript from video (click to open)
Emily: And do you find when you work with people because we have chronic holding patterns, they’re just going to get into my next question, but it’s like, do you find that when people start getting into a program of stretching suddenly, they didn’t actually realize they were holding and that something was tight, and it was like that their range of motion actually was greatly decreased because the length of the muscle was not allowing for the range or there was a holding pattern there. Does that make sense?
Brad: Yeah, for sure. I mean, most of us don’t even realize you know, the positions we hold ourselves in, and more importantly for how long we hold ourselves in those positions. I’m sure everyone has had the experience where they’re working away and all of a sudden, they look up at the clock or their watch or their phone and like two or three or four hours have gone by, and you just don’t know where that time’s gone. So, yeah, this is a real problem in our modern society, we live the sedentary lifestyles, and you know, getting out and exercising for an hour a day is fantastic. But it doesn’t necessarily compensate for the hours and hours and hours that we spend in these constricted positions. And when someone does start a flexibility program it’s really common for someone to make the comment, like you said before, they just didn’t even realize they had that tension there.
You know, maybe they’ve had sort of a headache or a backache or something like that. And when we start exploring their flexibility, we start looking for their limits in range of motion. One of the really important things to do when it comes to flexibility is looking for imbalances from one side of the body to the other, or the front of the body to the back of the body. You know, these imbalances put a lot of tension, a lot of strain and a lot of torsion on the joints and muscles. And when we start to even out some of these flexibility imbalances you know, people are sort of awakened to what their body was feeling. And more importantly, how good they should be feeling.
Emily: I love that yes, what we can be feeling.
Mistake #1: Looking for the Magic Stretch
Many people are looking for that one “magic” stretch that is going to fix everything and do away with their pain for good. The reality is that one single stretch will do very little for your long term chronic pain. Even though I was able to offer the lady in the story above a little relief with one stretch, it certainly wasn’t the complete answer to her long term pain.
Stop looking for the magic stretch. Start to incorporate a variety of stretching exercises and avoid doing the same stretch over and over again.
This is the same approach a well-designed strength training program uses. By including a variety of exercises the athlete avoids working the same muscles day-in-day-out, which can lead to muscle imbalances. This approach also allows sufficient time for one muscle group to rest while working on another group of muscles.
The same approach applies to stretching; while it’s certainly okay to stretch every day; it’s not a good idea to do the same stretches every day, day after day.
Mistake #2: Stretching the Wrong Way
Another mistake I see a lot of people making is choosing the wrong type of stretching or not stretching properly.
When I asked the lady in the story above to show me some of the stretches she had already tried, I wasn’t too interested in the particular stretch that she did, rather I was more interested in the way she did it: What type of stretching was she doing, and how long did she hold the stretch for?
These are much more important issues than which stretch to do, yet most people are only interested in finding that one magic stretch.
If you’re looking to reduce long term chronic pain, what is the right way to stretch? Light, gentle, long-hold, static stretching.
Let me break that down for you.
- By “light, gentle” I mean that the tension you feel when stretching should be very mild. Most people stretch way too intensely, and try to push the stretch way too hard. The type of stretching that will help chronic muscle pain should be very relaxing and very pleasurable. If I had to assign a number to the intensity of this type of stretching, it would be a 5 or 6 out of 10. Where 1 is no stretch at all and 10 is the absolute hardest you can push the stretch.
- By “long-hold” I mean staying in the stretch position for at least 60 seconds. Again, most people don’t stretch anywhere near long enough to get any benefit from the stretch. Typically, most people will only hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. That’s not even enough time for your muscles and connective tissues to start to relax and lengthen, let alone for your nervous system to adapt to the new muscle length.
- And by “static stretching” I mean getting into the stretch position and holding it. Static stretching is performed by placing the body into a position whereby the muscle (or group of muscles) to be stretched is under tension. Both the opposing muscle group and the muscles to be stretched are relaxed. Then slowly and cautiously the body is moved to increase the tension of the stretched muscle group. At this point the position is held or maintained (for at least 60 seconds) to allow the muscles to lengthen.
Don’t forget to breathe slowly and deeply while stretching. Many people unconsciously hold their breath while stretching. This causes tension in the muscles, which in turn makes it very difficult to stretch. To avoid this, remember to breathe slowly and deeply during all stretching exercises. This helps to relax the muscles, promotes blood flow and increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
Mistake #3: Stretching the Wrong Muscle Group
As you may have noticed in the story above, my initial treatment focused on an area (or muscle group) that seemed unrelated to the pain the lady was suffering. And at first glance, it does seem quite odd; why would anyone stretch their chest if the pain is in their back?
This is another common mistake a lot of people make when trying to treat their own pain; they focus all their attention and treatment on the pain and never get to the real source of the problem. This is often referred to as treating the symptoms and not the cause.
So how do you know if that pain in your back is caused by tight muscles in your legs, or a problem with your hips, or flat feet, or over-developed shoulders, or tight chest muscles, or whatever?
Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult for the layperson to diagnose. Even experienced professionals can struggle to correctly diagnose the true source of some pain.
The professional therapist can look for biomechanical inefficiencies, postural problems, and muscle imbalances among other things, but often times the best course of treatment is a series of small experiments (based on an educated assumption) designed to root out the true source of the problem.
When trying to uncover the source of chronic pain the best people to see for an accurate diagnosis are osteopaths, chiropractors, and physical therapists, and even they don’t always get it right.
As a general rule; if it’s not tight and it’s not causing you any problems, you don’t need to stretch it. There are a few exceptions to this (such as athletes that require increased flexibility for their chosen sport), but for most people this is a wise rule to follow. So if you perform a stretch and you don’t feel any tension in the target muscle group, this would indicate that you’re not tight in that area.
So what can you do to try and locate the real cause of your pain? Here are two suggestions…
- Work around the injury: Start by doing a few stretches for the muscle groups around your injury. For example; if you have lower back pain start by stretching your hamstrings, buttocks, hips and groin. This will help to take some of the stress and tension off the muscles that are in pain, which allows them to relax, and often leads to a reduction in pain. Another advantage of this approach is that oftentimes the muscle group that is in pain is too sore to treat directly, and stretching the muscles that are hurting only leads to more pain.
- Look for muscle imbalance: As you start to notice which muscles are tight and which muscles aren’t, aim to create a balance of flexibility between the front of your body and the back of your body, and the left side of your body and the right side of your body. For example, if you notice that your right hamstring muscles are tighter than your left hamstrings muscles, work on the right hamstring muscles until you have even flexibility in both.
Research and References
- Alter, M. (2004) Science of Flexibility, 3rd Edition (ISBN: 978-0736048989)
- Cláudia Violino CunhaI, A. Nogueira BurkeII, T. Jorge Renovato FrançaII, F. Pasqual MarquesII, A. (2008). Effect of global posture reeducation and of static stretching on pain, range of motion, and quality of life in women with chronic neck pain: a randomized clinical trial. Clinics, vol.63 no.6.
- Häkkinen, A. Salo, P. Tarvainen, U. Wiren, K. Ylinen, J. (2007). Effect of manual therapy and stretching on neck muscle strength and mobility in chronic neck pain. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 39(7) 575-579(5).
- Khalil, T. Asfour, S. Martinez, L. Waly, S. Rosomoff, R. Rosomoff, H. (1992). Stretching in the rehabilitation of low-back pain patients. Spine, 17(3):311-317.
- Page, P. (2012) Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1): 109–119.
- Sherman, K. Cherkin, D. Wellman, R. Cook, A. Hawkes, R. Delaney, K. Deyo, R. (2011). A Randomized Trial Comparing Yoga, Stretching, and a Self-care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain. JAMA Internal Medicine, 171(22):2019-2026.
- Walker, B. (2011). The Anatomy of Stretching, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-1583943717)
- Ylinen, J. Kautiainen, H. Wirén, KK. Häkkinen, A. (2007). Stretching exercises vs manual therapy in treatment of chronic neck pain: a randomized, controlled cross-over trial. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 39(2) 126-132(7).
About the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.