The science behind stretching – part one

Is stretching the answer to that “feeling” of tightness?

The sensation of tightness in the body can be explained by using pain as a relative analogy. As discussed in our previous article on pain, pain is and output from the brain and not the body or tissue therefore it can exist without the presence of tissue damage but more as a perception of the threat of pain.

The same can be applied to the sensation of tightness. Tightness can occur due to numerous different mechanical, neural and psychological factors which often initiates when our bodies perceive that there is a threatening dysfunction occurring in the tissue that requires a movement correction to prevent further injury.

The difficulty in understanding this definition is that we often feel tightness even when the muscle is off loaded or in a completely relaxed position. So, how can there be a perceived danger in such a position?

In such an instance tension is not a threat, but the absence of adequate blood flow or rest is a threat that can cause a physiological response in the bodies tissues.

Therefore, the feeling of tightness is not trying to warn us about the existence of tension, but the frequency of tension or the lack of blood flow to our neuro muscular system.

It would therefore be accurate to say that tightness may be perceived as a type of unconventional pain that causes the brain to act in contrast to conventional pain.

Pain often causes a form of fear avoidance or movement dysfunction which to our detriment prevents us from moving certain joints/muscles, while tightness in comparison is a warning for us to get moving before a movement dysfunction occurs.

Tightness in professional sport is often seen as a prerequisite to muscular injury and is often as detrimental to an athlete’s chances of participating as the injury itself.

A perfect example of this was the recent exclusion of Sean O’Brien from the champions cup semi-final due to a hamstring tightness. The risk of further injury due the presence of tightness was deemed too great even in the most important game of Leinster’s year.

That’s all well and good but how does this knowledge help us cure that feeling of tightness?

The feeling of tightness must also be treated in a multi-factorial way just like the treatment of pain. It must encompass treating the psychological element’s such as the input from the body that causes the perception of tightness like our memories, thoughts and emotions associated with previous episodes of tightness.

In most simple cases of feeling tight, the cause is obvious – we have maintained the same movement pattern or posture for too long, and our muscles need to change position to reduce the ischemia and subsequent metabolic stress that is causing a painful/tight stimulus in the tissue.

For those more complex cases that I see in clinic daily the combined approach outlined in part two of this blog must be used to get positive results.

Part two of this Blog which will be released later this week will guide you through some simple tips to reduce that “feeling” of tightness.