My initial instruction to patients that I see with this “over-stretched” phenomena is simple: Stop stretching. In most cases, a cessation of stretching will greatly reduce their lower back pain within a few weeks.
Most people when confronted with this information inevitably begin to question the merits of stretching as a means of improving their health. Have we been lied to by the countless trainers, therapists, instructors, and media about the virtues of stretching? There is, after all, widespread clinical data that supports the positive effects of stretching. In my clinical setting I, admittedly, stretch people every day.
How do we know what in fact is the appropriate amount to stretch?
The key to answering this question lies in the knowledge of normal muscle and joint ranges. If you have excessive range in a certain position, there is no inherent benefit in continuing to stretch into that position. An exception to this rule would involve people that need excessive range of motion for some job or activity. Dancers, acrobats, and other professional athletes may require considerably more than the normal range of flexibility to perform selected activities.
On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who lack normal muscle flexibility. I routinely see people who could not lean forward to touch their toes if their lives depended on it, myself included. This is the population that would in fact benefit from a bit of muscle stretching. I have treated many of these “stiff” patients who have, in fact, benefited from joining a yoga class. It may even be possible that a tight muscle group may be contributing to an imbalance in your body that is causing pain.
The overall message here should be quite clear: it is a good idea to gently stretch muscle groups that lack normative range, and it is a bad idea to stretch muscles that already have more than normal range. If you have muscles that meet the normal ranges, then stretching needs only to be used as a “warm-up”, or for the purpose of maintenance. Your goal should not be to surpass normal ranges of muscle flexibility.
Muscles that are too long actually need to be re-trained to work in a more normal range. This is why it is key to be able to readily identify exactly which muscle groups in your body are in need of stretching, and which muscle groups are in need of re-training.