Recently I was having a conversation with a parent about why stretching is important.
Her son has Spastic Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and is really tight pretty much everywhere, but more specifically, his hamstrings (back of his thigh muscles) and adductors (inside thigh muscles).
So mom wanted to know why his legs seem looser after physical therapy but then the next day feels tight again?
Taking the high tone/spasticity part out of it, I used my hair tie as an example.
The Hair Tie Example
The hair tie in the middle is one fresh out of the pack so it’s tighter at rest.
When it’s stretched it can get way bigger but once the stretching force (my hand) releases it, it goes back to normal. Now over time, the hair tie gradually gets more and more stretched out and eventually will look like the outer one in the picture.
How Does A Hair Tie Relate To Tight Muscles?
So you may be wondering how a hair tie relates to tight muscles?
It takes way longer to stretch out those muscles over time if they’re only being stretched for brief little intervals.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you should stop working on stretching the muscles because it will eventually get looser over time. This definitely takes time and consistency.
It takes having to stretch for a longer period of time…so what that means is instead of just holding a brief stretch for 15-30 seconds at a time and then being done with it, you can work on maintaining a position that stretches the muscle.
1. Maintain A Position That Stretches The Muscle
For this client, for example, holding a cross sitting position with a sandbag over his legs for 15-20 minutes is way more effective than just having him lay down and stretch his adductors quickly.
The even better part about this is we can work on reaching in sitting while he holds it to make the best use of the time! Over time these muscles will get longer and be more like the stretched-out hair tie.
That’s just one quick example, but there are lots of different ways to do this.
2. Follow Up Stretching With Mobility Exercises
Another thing that’s important to note is following up on stretching with mobility exercises.
I know it might be hard to do, but strengthening the muscle right after stretching (in its new lengthened range), helps it to stay that way!
3. Sitting In A Wheelchair
Something else important to note is that especially for these children/young adults that are sitting in their wheelchairs most of the day, stretching has to be part of a routine to continually do.
Doing it for one week will not make a significant impact. It’s the small little gains over longer periods of time that will make the big differences!
Think about it….pretend you’re sitting at work all day and feeling stiff. You get up and walk around to “stretch” for a minute and then sit back down for another few hours. Do you think that the little stretch you did made much of a difference long term? Not so much. It did help you to feel better at that moment but you’ll probably be feeling that way again in another hour after sitting at your desk.
4. Make Stretching A Part Of Your Child’s Routine
Lastly, it’s important to add stretching into your child’s routine so that there’s more consistency when they’re not in therapy sessions.
I know you have a million other things on your plate and it can feel impossible to find additional time for these types of suggestions, so figure out where it makes sense and feels the most natural in your day!
For instance, incorporating stretching into your child’s after-bath routine is an easy way to get some stretching in AND it’s an opportune time since their muscles are already warm and relaxed! It’s always a great idea to check in with your child’s therapist as well to see which stretches and activities would be the most beneficial!
About the Author
Dr. Christine Astarita, PT, DPT is the founder of Breakthrough Intensive PT; Long Island’s intensive therapy center focused around the whole family. Throughout her career, Christine has worked with children from the NICU all the way into adulthood and knew there had to be a better way to serve them. So, she’s taken her passion and direction in life to serve the special needs community by offering intensive therapy programs, group fitness programs, parent support, and educational programs, as well as sibling support programs to enhance and improve the quality of their lives.
When not working at Breakthrough PT, reading, or researching ways to improve the business, you can find her out with her family hiking the trails or preparing for her next half or full marathon! Christine loves running and believes it to be her method of meditation all while keeping her in shape to eat all of the ice cream and french fries she wants! She believes her true purpose and calling is to help this underserved community in a BIG way.
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