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Can You Stretch Too Much?

Including all of the articulations between your ribs, sternum, and vertebrae, you have approximately 170 joints in your body. More, actually, as some of your joint areas like your ankles, knees, wrists, and elbows have multiple joints within their functional units.

All of your 170 functional joints have two common elements:

  1. They are tightly bound by ligaments that are intended to prevent them from dislocating.

  2. They are also surrounded by skeletal muscles that control their movement, as directed by your nervous system.

As you age, your ligaments and muscles gradually lose inherent flexibility that is essential for allowing your body to swerve and bend rather than crack and snap.

This natural loss of elasticity within your ligaments and muscles occurs due to gradual diminishment of blood flow, lymphatic flow, and estrogen production. As you lose elasticity and flexibility, you are at greater risk of experiencing sprains, strains, and fractures.

So generally speaking, regular stretching is health-enhancing, and unless you are uber mindful of maintaining optimal flexibility, chances are that you need to stretch more, not less.

But is it possible to stretch too much? Can you hurt your health by overdoing it?

Here is a note that I received on this topic a few days ago:

Hi Dr Kim,

I read with interest the feedback about stretching and using a foam roller to help relieve a hip problem involving a labral tear.

My question is this: Could this technique work if you are hyper-flexible?

Unlike others, I've never had a problem with flexibility. Unfortunately, if anything, I've had more injuries because I seem to have no threshold or pain barrier that tells me I've stretched too far. I think my hip tear was caused doing a 'clam' exercise in Pilates and it has gotten progressively worse after the last 9 months to the point that I've just seen an Orthopaedic specialist who didn't give me any good advice and was cynical about key-hole surgery.

I'm happy to avoid surgery but don't want to make the tear worse. Do you think I'd still benefit from stretching or foam rolling when I believe it was stretching that may have given me this problem in the first place? Many thanks for any advice you may be able to offer.

- Victoria

In a situation like Victoria's, in my experience, regular foam rolling can help facilitate healing via improved blood and lymphatic flow in the injured area, but further stretching should be avoided.

I have seen cases where stretching enthusiasts - usually avid practitioners of yoga or Pilates - demonstrate ligament laxity where ligaments are too loose to optimally stabilize joints they are meant to keep from dislocating. Ligament laxity can predispose tissues to injury because said tissues tend to be overextended when joints are repeatedly pushed to the extremes of their natural range of motion.

In some cases, hyper-mobile joints are a genetic disposition. For example, where a person experiences frequent dislocations of one shoulder joint, simple orthopedic testing will often reveal that the other side that has never been dislocated displays much greater internal and external range of motion than that of the average shoulder joint.

Whether ligament laxity is genetically determined or the result of stretching too much over a long period of time, in situations where joints are hyper-mobile due to weakened ligaments, it's important not to over-stretch, and to be diligent with strengthening exercises, as improving the strength of surrounding skeletal muscles can provide needed stability to the affected joint.

In the case of a hyper-mobile hip joint, a good treatment plan would involve strengthening hip flexors, hip extensors, and hip rotators, as well as all major muscle groups surrounding the upper core region (abdominal and lumbar erector muscles) and lower extremities (quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves).

For more guidance on stretching and foam rolling major muscle groups and ligaments throughout your body, please feel free to view the following archive:

Stretching and Foam Rolling Archive


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