When Not to Stretch

The benefits of flexibility are rarely disputed. After all, most of us need to be more flexible- or at least as flextime as we can be within our genetic limitations. If we are at our optimum flexibility, we are less prone to suffer an injury when pushing our physical limitations, such as on the volleyball or basketball court or, more specifically, at a burning structure.


So, pushing for maximum flexibility should be our constant goal, right? Not necessarily. There is a particular period of time when attempting to train our muscle tissue for maximum elongation can be a bad idea. This time generally consists of the first 24 to 72 hours following muscular or tendonous trauma.


Remember when coaches would tell athletes who had twisted an ankle or knee to “Run it off”‘? We now know that was very bad advice. But, by the same token, we are repeating that same detrimental line of thought when we suggest trying to “stretch out” an area of the body where some pinpointed discomfort is occurring.


Regardless of the mechanism of injury, e.g., muscle strain or pull, joint sprain or hyperextension, one thing is common in any tearing of tendonous or muscular tissue, and that is hemorrhaging (bleeding). Whether it is micro or massive tissue trauma, the bleeding that occurs is not unlike when we scrape or cut our skin. As the blood forms over the wound, it produces a protective scab until the healing process can take place, producing new skin.


The bleeding from trauma to a muscle or tendon does not necessarily form a scab like the one we see on top of the skin. However, there is a coagulation of blood and a spasming of tissue as the body attempts to protect itself from further damage until the healing process can take place. When this happens, a passive-or possibly even active-range of motion may be warranted, but stimulating the stretch reflex to maximum endpoint can induce further trauma.


Let’s create a scenario. A firefighter feels a slight discomfort in a hamstring after a drill. He may complain of tightness and feel that if he could just stretch it out a little bit it would improve. So he does, and, for the time being, it does feel better. At this point, he is doing pretty well, or maybe experiencing a minor cramp.


Later, we see him trying to stretch out that hamstring again. However, this time the dull ache or slight burning sensation does not subside. All of this indicates that an injury has occurred and continued stretching is contraindicated. The muscle/tendon is resisting efforts to elongate and is sending a pain message to the brain. Don’t ignore it. Instead, curtail activity, ice the body part and consult your trainer.

Avatar Written by Gregory L. Welch MS ATC

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