You feel stiff and sore so you stretch. That should make you feel better right? If you can solve your pain or stiffness with stretching, then congratulations, you have applied the right “tool” to the problem.
But what if the pain or stiffness does not go away with stretching? Then clearly part of the problem is being missed.
I see many people who continue to stretch their necks or backs with less than satisfactory results. Often times the wrong muscles are getting stretched or are already stretched too much. In this case, strengthening is often needed to bring lengthened/weak muscles back to a more toned state which actually can relax them.
This happens quite a bit in the neck and upper back.
In other situations (say in your low back), muscles can become very stiff because they are working too hard. The whole system in the pelvic girdle has become unbalanced. With chronic low back pain, the “core” muscles can get shut down neurologically (meaning they go to sleep or take a break). When this happens the outer muscles work harder because they are sensing a problem and are desperately trying to pick up the slack. This leaves a person feeling stiff in the outer muscles of the low back, and sore in deeper muscles of the low back. The trick is to rebalance the core against the outer muscles, while shifting the burden onto the core without adding more stress to the outer muscles. Traditional sit-ups won’t help here because bending forward usually makes the low back situation worse (not to mention that your abs only make up a small portion of the core anyway).
Other times soreness and stiffness can be due to plain old arthritis (osteoarthritis) in joints. Arthritis can start as early as your teens, but is much more common in the 30’s, 40’s and beyond. Many people have arthritis and never feel it, while others feel it quite a bit. It depends on an individual and their unique history (injuries can speed up the arthritis timeline). I look at arthritis the way I look at crooked teeth: sometimes it’s really bad and you need braces – other times you just leave it alone.
Lastly, soreness and/or stiffness can be due to chemical problems such as magnesium or potassium imbalances, dehydration, thyroid problems and a whole host of other deficiencies. This is usually solved by performing a chemical blood panel or by trial and error.
Again this will depend on a person’s individual history. If I know someone has had a thyroid issue in the past, then I may suspect thyroid before something else. On the other hand, if the patient is 15 years old, then thinking of a thyroid problem might be at the bottom of the list.
In short, if you cannot solve your problem by stretching ask your health professional for help. Sometimes the answer is a little trickier than you might initially think.
Matt Terreri, DC, CCSP is a sports chiropractor at Southern Oregon Sports & Spine, official chiropractor for the SOU Raiders and sports chiropractic physician for the US Olympics.