Dr. Gray's Straight Talk

Honest and blunt healthcare discussion and advice.

Stretches for Neck and Lower Back

Posted by Dr. Gray on Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Okay… back from my first vacation in over three years and ready to jump back in with some fresh info for you all.

Flexibility is the ability to move the joints and muscles through a normal range of motion, and it’s an important fitness measure; in fact, it’s one of the five health-related components of physical fitness, along with muscular strength, muscle endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance and body composition. Here are just a few of the health benefits attributable to a regular flexibility and stretching program: increased circulation, improved posture, better coordination and stress relief.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are six essential guidelines to keep in mind when stretching:

1 Warm up first. You’re more likely to pull a muscle when it’s cold. Start off with five minutes of walking, light limb movement or a favorite low-intensity exercise.
2 Hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds, remembering to breathe. Simply put, it takes time to stretch tissues safely. Go too fast and you could be in for trouble in the form of a muscle tear. For most muscle groups, a single 30-60-second stretch is adequate.
3 Don’t bounce. Speaking of muscle tears, bouncing during a stretch can cause microtears in the muscle, leaving scar tissue as the muscle heals, which will only make the muscle tighter and more prone to future pain and inflexibility.
4 Avoid pain. You shouldn’t feel pain during a stretch. If you do, you’ve gone too far and need to back off and hold the stretch in a pain-free position.
5 Stretch both sides. Joint range of motion needs to be as equal as possible on both sides of the body; after all, if only half the body is flexible, the other half can still cause problems.
6 Stretch before and after exercise. Stretch them lightly before a workout and then more thoroughly after your workout. Stretching before activity improves flexibility and reduces injury risk; stretching after exercise relaxes tired muscles and reduces muscle soreness and stiffness.

Here are a few sample stretches you can start doing right away:

Range-of-Motion Stretch: There are six ranges of motion in the neck and in the lower torso. Bending forward (flexion), bending backward (extension), bending straight to either side (lateral flexion), and straight turning around the axis (rotation). For the neck: lower your chin towards your chest until you feel a good stretch. Use two fingers to push on the top of your head to increase the stretch, if you can take it. Hold that stretch for 7-10  seconds (30-60 according to Mayo) then slowly return to neutral. Repeat three times in all six directions. Pay attention to your “form.” Make sure you are staying in the proper plane of motion. In other words… straight forward and back on flexion/extension, ear straight towards your shoulder on lateral flexion, and don’t drop your chin on rotation. Same for the lower back stretches.

The Shoulder Stretch: Bring your left arm across the body and hold it with your right arm above or below the elbow. Hold for 30-60 seconds, switch arms and repeat. To stretch the internal rotators of the shoulder (important if you participate in tennis, golf or other overhead/throwing/swinging sports), hold a rolled-up towel vertically with both hands. One hand should hold the top of the towel and the other hand should hold the bottom of the towel. Now gently pull the towel toward the ceiling with your top hand, stretching the shoulder on your opposite arm. Hold for 30-60 seconds, switch top hand and repeat.

The Hamstring Stretch: Lie on the floor near the outer corner of a wall or door frame. With your left heel resting against the wall and your left knee bent slightly, straighten your left leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your left thigh. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, switch legs and repeat.

Your doctor can provide you with a complete list of stretches. Remember not to start any exercise or stretching program without consulting with a health care professional first.

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