60-Second Back Pain Fixes
How to Stretch When You're in Pain
It may sound counterintuitive, but lengthening and loosening muscles is key for rheumatoid arthritis pain relief.
By Meryl Davids Landau
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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If you’re like most people, when you think of exercise you think of strengthening your muscles or doing cardio for your heart. But Miranda Esmonde-White, longtime host of PBS’sClassical Stretch and author ofForever Painless, wants you to also recognize the comparable importance of lengthening muscles.
“Movement requires a suppleness in strength, otherwise you are only tightening and compressing the muscles, which prevents them from working properly,” she says.
Stretching is especially important for people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), because changes in the shapes of the bones also alter the shape of the muscles and connective tissue around them. Esmonde-White says lengthening these structures helps minimize the pain this causes.
Move Even When Joints Flare
“It’s important to move your joints to maintain your range of motion even during flares,” says Scott Haak, a physical therapist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, who notes you either move it or lose it. If you let joint pain keep you from moving the joint, he explains, it can atrophy surrounding muscles.
Take It Slow and Gentle
Still, people with RA need to be careful not to overstretch, Haak cautions. Joint degeneration may cause a lack of stability in the joints that makes it easier to overdo it. Stretch only within your available range of motion.
Esmonde-White suggests taking things slowly and gently, especially if you find it hurts when you stretch. Keep your focus on your movements so you don’t accidentally jerk parts of your body.
Pull Back if You Feel Pain
You’ll want to move into a stretch only to the point where you feel tension. “Never push yourself if you feel a pain when you’re in a stretch,” Esmonde-White cautions. If you do, you could tear connective tissue, which causes more pain in the future when the tears heal with scar tissue. Instead of pushing through, stop and take a break for a few minutes until the pain subsides.
Listen to the signs your body is sending. There’s a difference between the discomfort you feel when you are safely working your muscles (a good thing) and a sharp pain sensation when you are not (a warning that you should not be forcing it), Esmonde-White says.
You’ll want to stretch in a comfortable place with either low or no carpeting. Wear loose clothes and bare feet. Esmonde-White advocates a routine of daily stretches because it takes repeated effort for tight tissue to fully loosen.
If you haven’t stretched in a while, you might want to break your stretching workout into three or four sessions of 5 or 10 minutes each throughout the day, rather than doing it all together.
Stretch All Body Parts
A good session of stretching takes no more than half an hour, Esmonde-White says.
You may think you need only to stretch your ankles, or fingers, or whatever area is causing you pain, but everything is interconnected. “What happens in one part of the body affects every other part. So when, say, your hips are tight, the calves, the glutes, and other muscles are all shortened. This then pulls on the toes and feet, but also the neck and upper back,” she says. Similarly, tightness in the fingers can constrict the neck and upper back, and even the girding that houses the abdominal organs. “Everything influences everything. That’s why it’s critical that you stretch all parts of the body.”
Warm Up Before Stretching
In many exercise classes, stretchesarethe warm-up. But Esmonde-White advocates doing a brief warm-upbeforeyou stretch. “The purpose of a warm-up is to relax the body. When your muscles are tight you can’t properly stretch and strengthen them,” she says.
Warm-ups should involve gently moving various parts of your body, such as softly swinging a leg side to side while standing. Any movements that help you feel more relaxed are good to do.
Two Simple Yet Effective Stretches
Ankle and Foot Flex
- Stand next to the back of a chair and lightly hold it with one hand.
- Extend one leg forward. Point the toes on the raised foot, then continue moving through the stretch as you point the ankle.
- Now flex the toes, followed by the ankle.
- Repeat four to eight times and then change feet. Be sure to stand tall and not to lean in any direction as you do the moves.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips.
- Raise one arm to the ceiling. Relax the shoulders as you try to reach higher to a count of three.
- Then, contract the shoulders for a count of three. Relax again as you reach a little higher.
- Repeat the sequence several times before changing sides.
Video: Exercises and Stretches For Shoulder Pain
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