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NCCIH Research Blog

Making the Case for More Stretching, Less Stressing

May 5, 2020

Helene Langevin, M.D.

Helene Langevin, M.D.

Director

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View biographical sketch

Feeling stressed? As we all work to adapt to extraordinary circumstances, who isn’t? 

That’s why I was excited to participate in a livestream today to discuss what the research tells us about the health impacts of stretching and to demonstrate the practice in action. 

The science of stretching has long been a focus for me in my research into the role of connective tissue on human health, especially musculoskeletal pain. But stretching has been on my mind more frequently lately for a number of reasons. Social distancing to reduce spread of COVID-19 has left many feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, and missing the physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity. While research points to the various mind and body approaches for managing stress, stretching is an appealing option for those coping with social distancing measures because it’s something you can do daily, at home, and it can positively impact your health. 

To understand why stretching can impact our health, it’s important to understand exactly what we’re stretching. People often think stretching engages muscle, which is true. But stretching also engages connective tissue, including ligaments and fascia, which serve as the links among the muscles, bone, blood vessels, and organs in your body. 

While research is still yielding insights into the role of connective tissue, we know that fascia can become inflamed and transmit pain signals. We also know that even minor injuries can cause adhesions in the fascia, which mean the layers of this tissue may become “stuck” and lose their ability to glide as they do in healthy connective tissue. These issues can accumulate, with pain leading to reduced mobility and activity, and reduced mobility and activity contributing to worsening pain, resulting in a persistent cycle of deterioration or exacerbation. 

How do we interrupt that cycle of chronic musculoskeletal pain? Some “mind and body” practices – like massage, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong – all have a component of stretching that can potentially help restore connective tissue to health, although this is an understudied area in need of more research. Research in animal models has shown that stretching has anti-inflammatory effects in several types of inflammation, and we need to understand better if this holds true in humans. Studies are also pointing to an unexpected source of stretching: acupuncture. Although acupuncture needles and the resulting movement in tissue are small, these movements can help reorganize tissue that has been disrupted. 

As the health care community looks for ways to combat the public health challenges of chronic pain and the related opioid epidemic, this research points to an important role for nonpharmacologic interventions for pain

If you’re considering how you might add stretching into your daily routine, be sure to access good resources to ensure you stretch correctly and gently. Stretching should never hurt and paying close attention to what feels good and what doesn’t is an important part of safe practice.
 
If you missed the livestream, you can watch it here. Be sure to subscribe to NCCIH’s Clinical Digest for regular, timely updates on research findings. 

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