By Anita Boser
“I have to stretch every day to feel my best. It makes me more fluid and relaxed [and] less stodgy, and gives me energy,” says Diane Lewis, who was an avid backpacker and kayaker, before she was in a three car pileup, and her life changed forever. Lewis swears by stretching every day to help her pain and fatigue and she believes you can help yourself feel your best by following advice about stretching from healthcare experts.
“Stretching is one of the cornerstones of treatment for fibromyalgia,” says Pamela Roberts, MD, a family practice doctor at the Northwest Spine and Pain Center in Kalispell, Mont. Roberts isn’t just giving a professional perspective. She developed FM after the birth of her fourth child. She stretches regularly and encourages her patients to do the same, even though she admits that it doesn’t always feel good.
The benefits of stretching are numerous, far-reaching, and interrelated. You can expect improved mobility, decreased tightness, and more relaxation, all of which make activities of daily living easier. Also, stretching interrupts the cycle of pain and counteracts pain posture, and that changes how your body feels from the inside out. In addition, you gain the subtle advantages of greater body awareness and empowerment. What’s more, stretching takes less energy than other exercise and can be done in the comfort of your bedroom.
Stretching interrupts, the cycle of pain and counteracts pain posture.
Although stretching is necessary for a healthy body, any physical activity can cause harm if not done correctly—especially for people with fibromyalgia. Stretching cold muscles or overstretching runs the risk of injury, cautions Brad Roy, PhD, an exercise physiologist and Administrator of the Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s wellness facility, The Summit Medical Fitness Center. Therefore, it’s best to stretch after five to 15 minutes of warm-up exercise like walking (around the block or your living room), cycling (indoors or out), or even moving in a warm water pool or the shower.
The purpose of stretching is to lengthen muscles and to help them glide against each other. If you feel a burn, the muscle is lengthening too far and losing its cohesiveness. That’s overstretching, which creates microfiber tears—so it’s important to stay within your range. Roberts further encourages patients to get assistance from an exercise professional, like a physical therapist or personal trainer familiar with fibromyalgia, who can tailor an individualized program.
Eric Mason, a physical therapist in Winter Park, Fla., has developed a special protocol for his patients with chronic pain. After a warm-up, he has them move into and out of a stretch repeatedly before holding it. This further softens the connective tissue and gets it ready to lengthen. Next, he recommends stretching a little at a time, and cautiously introducing a hold—being careful about staying in a stretch. It’s easy to increase a stretch, but you can’t undo it when you stretch too far.
If you feel a burn, the muscle is lengthening too far.
Mason’s final piece of advice: if you feel pain elsewhere (for example, in the right side of your neck when stretching the left), you’re probably impinging joints and should consult a medical professional.
One of the keys to getting the most from a stretch is to be aware of your personal range, so you don’t go too far and cause a flare. Sharon Butler, author of Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, calls this the “stretch point,” the place where tissues will release. She notes that stretching is an opportunity to tune into your body’s intelligence and rediscover its messages. Does the stretch feel like torture, or a feathery kiss? Anything that’s painful is beyond the stretch point—and a clue to back off. Feel for other sensations, especially the “let go” as one layer of muscle gains new flexibility. These are small, but powerful, changes.
Stretching throughout the day is the most productive. Hal Blatman, MD, president of the American Holistic Medical Association and author of Winners’ Guide to Pain Relief, emphasizes that stretching is required to deactivate trigger points. He recommends stretching in the morning after warming up, and pressing or squeezing the painful points.
Furthermore, you should stretch as needed throughout the day, whether that’s once an hour or every 10 minutes. Professional athletes stretch before, during, and after practice, and Blatman encourages his patients to consider themselves athletes, even if they don’t participate in sports.
It’s easy to increase a stretch, but you can’t undo it when you stretch too far.
Think of strenuous activities like vacuuming as a workout, and stretch to prepare your body. Take a short break to stretch midway if the activity will last for more than 10 minutes, and afterwards stretch to relax, using breathing techniques and mental imagery to enhance the effect.
Lewis notices that her body’s needs change, so her stretching reflects this. Some days, 10 minutes is enough; others, she needs 40. She has collected stretches from yoga and physical therapy, as well as various books, and chooses different daily exercises to work on the places where she feels stiff. She tries to cover her whole body over a week’s time, rather than including everything every day.
Most importantly, Lewis tries to make stretching fun, so it’s not so much work. She may not be able to paddle her kayak at the moment, but she can reach into the cupboard for a dish with the same whole body involvement—from her foot, through her side and arm, to the fingertips. She can pretend she’s on the water and imitate the movements of eagles and orcas. Daily stretching brings her one step closer to the wilderness she loves.