Stretching feels good, animals do it all the time. But sometimes it hurts to stretch, sometimes its hard to move out of a particular posture, which can make us think twice about stretching in the first place. So what actually happens when we stretch? What is the science of stretching?
When we stretch, it is not just the muscles we are stretching, but the connective tissue as well. The muscles are surrounded by an envelope of connective tissue, known as the fascia. This fascia runs between muscles, around organs, blood vessels and nerves, in fact is an entire net-like structure of layers, organised into different planes, which makes up our shape. When a muscle moves, the force gets transmitted to the muscle next door to it, via the fascia. Fascia can tighten like the muscles it encompasses, due to general stress and strain from poor posture, being desk-bound or repetitive actions, and sometimes needs some encouragement to loosen up again. Gentle stretching and some myofascial release techniques can do this.
It has been seen by doctors at Harvard Medical School that when the fascia of a rat is gently stretched, the fascia strands move, and not just at the area being stretched but around the entire body of the rat. This is what happens for us too. They have discovered that stretching decreases any inflammation to the soft tissue. This is very important to us, as our orthodox treatment for pain is often anti-inflammatories or opioids, both of which can have damaging effects on our bodies and be addictive. If there is an alternative option for stretching the fascia, then this could be a better route to take.
So it is well worth taking a few minutes during your day to stop and stretch, it may just be enough to prevent pain and discomfort. If stretching alone does not get you out of the discomfort you feel, then some myofascial massage first should get things moving, and then you can continue with your stretching.