I am frequently asked by patients how long they should hold a stretch when trying to lengthen a muscle? As a rule, I recommend holding the stretch, in a non-painful range of motion, for 15-30 seconds.
A study just released in Jan 2021 provided some additional guidance on how long to stretch neck muscles. This study was looking specifically at people who had chronic myofascial neck pain (at least 8 weeks of pain). Myofascial pain (trigger points) in the neck and trapezius regions. This is commonly seen in people with poor posture or prolonged postures such as working at a computer or looking down at phones and tablets.
They helped the patients stretch for 15 sec, 30 sec, 60 sec and used a control group of subjects who did not stretch at all. The interesting part of this study was that they were looking at the effect that stretch had on the nerves. Many studies focus on the muscles themselves and fail to consider the stretch that is being placed upon the nerves. Can too much stretch be detrimental to a person’s nerves?
RESULTS: They found that the optimal stretching time is 30 seconds. Stretching for 30 and 60 seconds were similarly effective in decreasing pain but stretching 60 seconds had a negative effect on nerve function. Stretching for 15 seconds was safe for the nerve but did not provide as much pain relief.
My thoughts: As with any study, there are limitations and we do not want to overstate its findings. This was looking at a specific condition in one region of the body, one treatment vs a series of treatments, and short-term effects only. I believe we can reasonably conclude that we need to be aware of the possibility of negatively affecting nerve function with aggressive stretching. When we consider other research showing stretching of spinal tissues with light decompression is more effective than heavy decompression, then this study makes a lot of sense and is consistent. My final recommendation is to do things in moderation when working with your body, especially when injured. The no pain, no gain mentality is usually detrimental to you. Stay safe.
Sameeha S Mansoori, Ibrahim M Moustafa, Amal Ahbouch, Deed E Harrison: Optimal Duration Of Stretching Exercise In Patients With Chronic Myofascial Pain Syndrome: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Rehabil Med 2021;53(1):jrm00142
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