The most common question I get is a form of,
“What stretch can I do to help with my (insert body part here) pain?”
And every time I get that question, I fumble my words for about 10 seconds before I can come up with something valuable to say that is not what I really want to say, which is “There is no such thing because that’s not how it works.” How do I even begin? I mean, look, blanket statements are really hard to make these days with all the information we have. So yes, maybe for a few people, one simple stretch done daily could in fact rid of someone’s back pain. Especially if that person is completely sedentary, simple stretches that get said person to begin moving in novel ways can be immensely helpful. But that will only last for so long, and generally speaking, a specific target stretch is not a cure-all.
(Side note: I’m unsure of and curious about why it’s assumed that stretching is the answer to pain. Did yoga do that? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because stretching actually does feel good as it releases endorphins and can have a temporary analgesic effect. )
My dad, a runner, recently asked me what stretch he can do to help with his nagging proximal hamstring attachment pain. I was both exasperated with the thought of having to navigate an answer to a question that was the wrong question to be asking in the first place, and also extremely empathetic toward all of us as humans who have really busy lives, lots of aches and pains, and need help; to us humans who have been conditioned by media? culture? medicine? technology? that quick fixes exist and instant gratification can prevail; to us humans who are constantly bombarded with misinformation and contradictory information about how to be healthy; to us as adults who have been told that pain is unequivocally the product of getting older. How can I answer that question in a way that empowers him to think about the adaptability of his body, the importance of strength training, and the holistic approach to working with the body beyond isolated muscles? Tough ask.
The truth is that, with the body, simple fixes sometimes DO exist. Small changes and very non-dramatic adjustments can be made to existing habit patterns that may change people’s worlds. BUT, there are so many things in the way of accessing these fixes that keep them from being quick. One of the loudest dogmas of the movement world in which I strongly believe, is that pain is a signal for change. Pain is our body telling us something we’re doing needs to fundamentally change. So, if we just want to stretch out “X” body part for a few weeks until it feels better, what have we inherently changed about the way we walk, the way we hold ourselves, the way we exercise, the way we live our lives? Nothing. Even if we’re ready to do the work of strengthening said body part for a few weeks until it feels better, we haven’t changed our lifestyle. We haven’t shifted our perspective. We’ve just band-aided the problem, and you can bet you’ll see more leaks in the ceiling until you decide to address the entire roof.
Where does the shift come from? It comes from the source of the problem. WHY do you have this pain? Ok, this is a huge question and largely goes unanswered by us as individuals AND by science. However, we DO know that generally speaking, our sedentary lifestyle has literally weakened our bodies. For the record, when I say sedentary, I’m talking about an evolutionary culture shift that has affected every single one of us. I, a yoga teacher and not a desk 9-5er, am still a sedentary being. We are currently a more sedentary species than we have ever been before. So, the second most important dogma of the movement world in my opinion is: getting stronger is essential for healthy living. Let’s say someone has a host of weight issues, sleep issues and cholesterol issues but does not exhibit any signs of disease or physiological malfunction. The first thing any doctor will prescribe is diet and exercise. It’s a given. THEN if diet and exercise still don’t improve the weight, sleep, and cholesterol issues, more tests will need to be done, more doctors visited, etc. Diet an exercise are commonly accepted and proven “filters” for A LOT of physiological symptoms.
So, what if strength training was a proven (it is) and widely accepted (not yet) filter for chronic musculoskeletal pain? What if the immediate prescription for any chronic pain was “get stronger and then if that doesn’t fix the problem, we’ll look at other things” . . . .???? For the sake of a shorter blog post, I’ll include moving well as part of getting stronger, because it absolutely matters just as much ( I’d argue that they are both equally important to musculoskeletal health). And the thing is, just like diet and exercise, it’s not something you do for a month, get better, and then continue life as you had before. It’s a fundamental shift in lifestyle. You must continually challenge your body to adapt to new movements and new strengths or it will certainly challenge your nervous system with aches and pains.
I’m aware that this is a really simplistic view of things. There are SO many circumstances that feed into why people feel the way they do and have the symptoms they have. However, it’s a nothing-to-lose-and-everything-to-gain first step, and there are many docs and PT’s out there who are seeing how so many of people’s chronic pains disappear with strength training. And anyway, at the end of the day, aren’t we looking for simplistic ways to digest our lives a little bit easier? I truly believe in the idea that this perspective, this “filter” is way more effective at addressing the general population’s pain symptoms than a pain pill, the ineffective surgery, the “just stop moving that body part if it hurts.”
So, keep moving. And get stronger while you’re at it.