Stretch Your Way to Better Health
This article was provided by Dr. Cale Copeland of Victoria Family Chiropractic in Victoria, BC. If you would like to learn more, please visit https://www.vfchiro.com/.
In my mid-twenties I recall going to a Men's Power Yoga class. I was excited. I was having back issues and was really stiff, so it sounded great. I went to class, and because I'm competitive I tried to really push the stretches to the maximum. The next day I could hardly walk. After a hard workout this could be viewed as a good sign, and I've definitely felt that post exercise soreness, but this was different. I was in pain and my back felt much worse. I decided to go again the follow week thinking that pain might be normal for the first time. The same thing happened again. I assumed that stretching wasn't for me and resumed my life of not stretching.
I had been seeing a chiropractor and it definitely was helping. The pain would subside for a while after I saw them, and it would eventually return, and I would return once I was in agony again. This cycle repeated, and my back pain became chronic. It was really affecting my ability to do activities I wanted to do such as hockey, golf and frisbee. I remember several episodes during these activities when I had to stop because I 'threw' my back out. During one of these lower back pain episodes I remember my body was shifted to one side, I could barely move, and I was in serious pain. I started getting concerned about my ability to work because of my back pain and disability and I was in the process getting my educational requirements for chiropractic school.
I ended up starting to see the chiropractor more regularly. This was a big step forward, instead of just going when I was in severe pain. The chiropractic was helping but I knew that to get where I wanted that I'd have to do more, but I didn't know what that was. I wanted to be physically active and have no doubts that I could do the activities I loved it without putting my back out. I've always enjoyed physical activity. I had been working out for years before I started chiropractic school, was reading books on health and fitness, attending seminars and was a sponge for anything health related. Eventually I started to put it all together and with time and work I achieved my dream of being healthy and having no physical limitations.
I've always been fascinated with human performance. I look up to athletes at the top of their game and want to learn what they have done that has allowed them to perform at that level. I then pass that onto my patients and apply them to myself. The biggest factor that got me into stretching was reading a book called Serve to Win by the then #1 tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic (remarkably he's still the #1 player in the world). Mr. Djokovic mentioned his stretching routine as a pivotal factor in his success. In his book (1), Novak referenced another book called The Genius of Flexibility by Bob Cooley as being an inspiration.
I decided to buy this book by Mr. Cooley and began using the stretching technique on myself (2). I began to discover that I was more flexible in some areas than others and that I was generally pretty stiff. I started to stretch more and more regularly. As I started to become more flexible, I was surprised at how little time it took to stretch. I also discovered that stretching in the morning was very hard for me because I woke up extremely stiff. It was normal for me to have trouble putting on socks when I woke up because I couldn't bend forward enough. Often, I'd have to rock back and forth on the bed and attempt to hook my socks over my toes!
As a result of my improvements, I started to develop a routine where I would stretch at night just before bed. As Mr. Cooley in his book outlined, it was important to push the stretches to gain flexibility. I did this slowly because I was scared to wake up in severe pain and be barely able to move. In fact, I found the exact opposite occurred. I was waking up feeling more and more limber without pain and stiffness. Currently, it's been over a decade since those days and I am thrilled. I've found stretching to be an important time that I enjoy, and I feel that it has given me greater insight and awareness of my body but also of who I am. I began to feel my body more and how tense and tight I was. As a result, I'm now more aware of how and when stress is affecting me. I'm calmer and have adopted other techniques such as breathing that have helped propel my health and help maintain it.
All this has worked in tandem with chiropractic. I see a chiropractic regularly for health management now. I rarely suffer from pain, and despite having a history of severe trauma and chronic back pain, my health has never been better. Now in my mid-forties, I'm significantly stronger and more flexibly than I was in my teens and twenties. Stretching isn't the sole reason for this but it's a pivotal one. I currently stretch daily for on average one to two minutes. Some days I stretch longer because I have the time and I want to. Other days I just want to get to bed and I may only touch my toes.
The key with stretching is to do it regularly. It doesn't need to take long but it's important to stretch the areas that are stiff. This can be challenging and even painful to some degree as we loosen stiff joints, ligaments, muscles, capsules and tendons. I believe that stretching and chiropractic for most people are critical elements to joint and spinal health. The reason joint mobility is so important is that when we suffer injuries to the spine. These injuries may be from repetitive strains like posture or traumas from accidents. These injuries commonly cause spinal joints to stiffen. These stiffened joints are the classic spinal misalignments chiropractors treat. Once a joint's motion becomes limited in leads to the degenerative (degenerative disc and spinal disease) cascade discovered by Kirkaldy-Willis. Normal joint motion allows for joint healing, mobility and normal nerve functioning (3).
Top Four Spinal Stretches
1. Touching Your Toes:
For some people this stretch is easy, but for others such as me, it felt impossible. This stretch is very important for back health. This is because touching your toes lengthens the hamstrings muscles (large muscles behind the thighs). The hamstrings when tight limit pelvic and lumbar motion, and as we know this is not good for joint health. This stretch also lengthens the spinal erector muscles in the lower back. The lower back is a common area to develop problems and keeping it supple is one of the keys to good spinal health. If time is a problem and you want to stretch quickly it's key to focus on areas that are stiff or restricted. If you can't touch your toes, then this would be a great stretch to work on. There are many variations to all stretches and this one can be done standing or sitting on the floor. Reach as far down as you can with your knees straight and remember to breath calmly. Push the stretch by either grabbing your leg and pulling towards your toes or hooking a towel under your feet to pull yourself with. You want to stretch yourself but not too much initially. Start slow and stop once you feel like you've had a good stretch. Tip: There is often fear in people to move their spines. This is unfortunate because the fear should be to NOT move the spine. Bending the spine forward, backwards, to the sides and rotating it is good. Things can get very stiff and often people are not aware. That's one reason why having a chiropractor is a good thing because they also act as a coach/guide.
2. The Hip Flexors:
This is a challenging area to lengthen but an important one. The hip flexors (AKA the iliopsoas or the psoas) are a muscle group that allows us to bring our knees up. They are located under the intestines and cannot be seen. When this muscle is tight it compresses the lower back and also limits hip motion. The lower back and hips are common areas to develop degenerative arthritis because of this. Like the hamstrings muscles we talked about above, this is commonly tight because we tend sit a lot, and when we do both these muscle groups are shortened. The easiest way for most people to lengthen these muscles is in a lunge position. Take a big step forward and drop your back knee to the floor. Use a wall or piece of furniture for balance if needed. The area we want to stretch is in front of the hip or to the side of our genital region. The hip flexor that is being stretched is the side where the leg is behind the body. Try to feel a stretch in that area. Pushing that same hip forward and raising the arm on the same sided above the body and away can help increase the stretch. This can be a tricky area to stretch so keep at it. A couple variations of this stretch are called the Couch stretch and the Thunderbolt stretch. Check those out if you're finding this version one non-effective.
3. The Hips and Gluteals:
The hips are a ball and socket type joint and are often confused with the sacroiliac or pelvic joints. The hips are moved primarily but the buttock or gluteal muscles. These muscles also tend to stiffen up and limit hip mobility. The stretch commonly referred to as the Pigeon stretch in the best way to stretch these muscles. There are several variations, and the stretch can be done sitting, on your back or on the ground. To do it in the seated position, bring your foot to your opposite knee. You'll sometimes see men sitting in the position. For some just this will be difficult. To increase the stretch, push the knee of the raised leg downwards and bend forward. This can be very painful for people especially if this area is not healthy, so start slowly. If you move your body towards the raised foot or towards the knee you should feel it stretching different areas. Experiment with it and focus on where you feel the most tightness. Follow the same stretching guidelines outlined above.
4. Spinal Extension:
The front of our body is often tight because of our time spent sitting, hunching forward or slouching. I love this stretch because it feels good, it lengthens the muscles in our abdomen and neck and it engages the muscles in our back. The common term for this stretch is called the Cobra, or the Cobra Pose. It can be done standing but I recommend lying face down on the floor, or you can use your bed if getting onto the ground is a problem. This can be one of those stretches that is easy for some but challenging for others. The ultimate goal would be to have your hands approximately under your shoulders and to straighten your arms as you push your upper body and neck away from the ground. Often just starting on your elbows can be a good start. The key to making this stretch effective is to extend your whole spine and neck as much as you can up and away from the ground. Often certain areas will be tight and other area may compensate. Try and be aware of that. With this stretch you should feel it anywhere from the front of the neck to the lower abdomen.
If spinal joints are stuck or misaligned it can make stretching very challenging and often difficult if not impossible to get the desired results. A chiropractor is trained to help you with these things. Chiropractors may also work on soft tissue adhesions or recommend you see another healthcare professional to help meet your personal health goals.
References: 1. Djokovic, N. (2013). Serve to win. New York: Ballantine Books. 2. Cooley, B. (2005). The genius of flexibility. New York: Simon & Schuster. 3. Ujjwal, K. D. (2018). Etiology and risk factors of lumbar intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration. Crimson Publishers. https://crimsonpublishers.com/rmes/fulltext/RMES.000597.php