Why does your massage therapist tell you to do stretches at home? There are a couple of reasons they give you this advice. The most simple reason is that massage therapists are taught to do that in massage school and by virtually all experts in the field. Therapists know that clients who want to benefit from massage must integrate stretches into their daily routines. Why? Because what a person does with their body on a daily basis will trump any intervention done by a medical professional, body worker or healer. It’s all about habituation. What you do every day sculpts your muscles and tissues.
If we drill down a bit, we can see that our normal sense of flexibility is a holistic dynamic that begins and ends with the nervous system. Did you know that a person under anesthesia has virtually full range of motion, even in the case of a serious condition like frozen shoulder. This is because the nervous system, not the muscles, is the great limiter of range of motion. Before you criticize this set up, understand that this limitation is what protects your muscles and tissues from overstretching injuries and tearing. The nervous system responds to what you do on a daily basis and it uses those motions, postures and actions to create its baseline of what is normal, like a template. The template shows up in your posture, the lengths of all the muscles in your body, how you move and what feels like balance to you (even if that is out of balance). If your current “template” is out of balance and unhealthy, you will probably feel tension and/or pain. To alleviate that pain and create health, you need to change the template.
Why stretching alone might not be enough
Changing the “template” through stretching techniques is a great practice, but sometimes stuck connective tissue (called fascia) will keep you from achieving the flexibility and balance you desire. Fascial stickiness, also known as adhesions, are a normal occurrence. They are a product of inactivity, undue stresses to the body through overexertion, repetitive motions or trauma. Some believe that poor diet and hydration can also cause fascia/muscle adhesions. Think of fascia as the skin underneath your skin. When that fascia “skin” glues your skin to your muscle, you will feel tension and perhaps pain. But it also can slow down the blood flow to the muscle. Therapeutic massage can break up the adhesions, the sticky fascia, and allow the muscle to benefit from your stretches. Massage also increases blood flow to the areas receiving therapy, bringing healing chemicals to the areas and removing cellular byproducts (aka toxins).
The fascia also wraps around each muscle fiber. When you have adhesions deep in the muscle itself, deep fiber friction (that deep back and forth diggy kind of massage) along with myofascial release can get rid of the adhesions and allow the muscles to work normally. The problem, however, is when you go back to the lifestyle that created the adhesions in the first place. If you don’t get rid of the stresses that create adhesions or take proactive measures, like stretching to counterbalance those stresses, the benefits of massage may evaporate. This is why your massage therapist tells you to stretch. Your post massage stretches help you train your nervous system to create a new normal and help alleviate the stresses that your lifestyle can put on your body. If you want a more comprehensive understanding of the biomechanics of a typical sedentary lifestyle, check out Katy Bowman’s book, Move Your DNA.
Photo by garryknight https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4711564626/sizes/z/