Stretching isn't supposed to hurt. If you feel a sharp pain in a muscle when stretching, it's a clue that you've either uncovered a pre-existing injury or pushed yourself too far, too fast.
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A Muscle Strain While Stretching
If you've managed to hurt yourself while stretching, odds are good that you've caused a muscle strain. As the Mayo Clinic explains, this can mean an injury to your muscle or to the tendons that connect your muscles to the bone — the same as a "pulled muscle" caused by too-strenuous exercise. A minor strain can mean that you've simply overstretched part of this tissue, while a more severe strain can result in a partial or complete rupture.
Unless you're getting mighty creative with your stretching, the relatively low loads on your muscles mean your strain is likely to be closer to the mild end of the scale — and the Mayo Clinic notes that mild strains can be treated at home.
First Aid for Muscle Strains
MedlinePlus explains the first aid protocol you can use at home for a muscle strain: Apply ice right away to reduce swelling; do this for 10 to 15 minutes on the hour in the first day, then every three or four hours for the next two days. Once three days have passed, they recommend either heat or ice if you still have pain.
Next, rest the pulled muscle for at least a day. If you hurt it while stretching, that does mean no more stretching — or at least not the same type and intensity of stretching — or anything else that causes pain. And finally, wait until the muscle no longer hurts before you gently reintroduce activity.
When to See a Doctor
If your symptoms don't improve with home treatment, if your pain becomes intolerable or if it presents with numbness or tingling, see a medical professional. MedlinePlus also recommends calling your local emergency number if you can't move the muscle or if your injury is bleeding.
It's also possible that the sharp pain you feel in a muscle while stretching is a pre-existing injury that you didn't notice until you put the muscle under tension. Either way, if you can't connect the discomfort with any particular cause, it's always best to err on the side of caution and consult a medical professional for a diagnosis. This can help you rule out other potential causes of your pain.
What Might Have Gone Wrong
If you're convinced that the sharp pain when stretching an arm, leg or any other body part was the start of your injury, there are several common mistakes that might have led to it:
Mistake 1: Not Warming Up
Stretching for flexibility is some of the gentlest exercise you can hope for, so the idea of warming up beforehand might seem counterintuitive. But doing five to 10 minutes of gentle activity before you stretch does literally warm your muscles up, increasing blood flow and decreasing your risk of injury.
You can "cheat" a bit — although it's really not cheating at all — by doing your stretching sessions at the end of your normal workouts, when your muscles are already warm.
Mistake 2: Stretching Until It Hurts
The saying "no pain, no gain" should really be "no consistent effort, no gain" — at least when it comes to stretching. When you stretch to the point of real pain, you're inviting an injury. Instead, do as the American Council on Exercise recommends and stretch to the point of tension or mild discomfort in your muscles, but not pain.
Mistake 3: Bouncing
Some of the earliest exercise videos showed the trainers bouncing cheerily in the stretch position, urging you to push it a little further every time. But the understanding of exercise science has improved exponentially over the years, and with that comes the knowledge that bouncing is counterproductive — exactly the sort of added stress that can cause a muscle strain.
Instead, relax into the stretch and hold it for 10 to 30 seconds, breathing normally. But even then, you're not done — if you're doing a unilateral (one-sided) stretch you should repeat it on the other side, and then repeat the stretch for a total of three to five times.
Reasons Why You Should Stretch
The most commonly cited guidelines for exercise come from the Department of Health and Human Services. To enjoy exercise-related health benefits, they recommend doing 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, plus strength-training all your major muscle groups twice a week.
But what about stretching? Even though it doesn't appear in those recommendations, flexibility is an important component of fitness. The American Council on Exercise lists 10 very good reasons to incorporate stretching into your regular fitness routine. These include reduced stress, less pain and stiffness, better range of motion, lower risk of injury, improved blood flow and circulation, and overall better quality of life.
Not sure about that last one? Imagine a life where you can't reach your feet to tie your shoes, lift your leg high enough to step over a low railing or work out at peak efficiency without pulling a muscle. Those are all examples of how limited flexibility can affect your freedom of movement and quality of life. However, stretching all your major muscle groups two or three times a week can help change that.
Other Ways to Encourage Flexibility
Doing static stretches (i.e., reach into the stretch; then hold it) with already-warm muscles is a great way to develop your flexibility. But that's not the only way to encourage greater freedom and range of motion. Any type of exercise that encourages you to put your muscles through a full range of motion — or gently extend that range, at most pushing only to the point of tension but not pain — can be helpful.
Examples of handy ways to encourage greater flexibility in your life include activities such as yoga, Pilates (which encourages balanced development of long, lean muscles) and some types of dance, which encourage you to bend, stretch and reach your way to greater flexibility.
- Mayo Clinic: "Muscle Strains"
- MedlinePlus: "Strains"
- American Council on Exercise: "Flexibility Exercises for Beginners"
- Mayo Clinic: "Guide to Stretches"
- American Council on Exercise: "10 Reasons You Should Be Stretching"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"