Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: injury

Disempowerment in Injury Treatment and Recovery

I just thought this article  needed a picture.

I just thought this article

needed a picture.

      So I’ve previous discussed Injury Shaming in the music field, as specifically related to employment, education, festivals, etc.  However, I did want to discuss some of the other issues related to injury treatment and recovery, as pertaining to musicians.  First, let's look at some of the problems with seeing medical professionals about a musical issue.

1.  The classic answer to overuse injuries, which sometimes prevents musicians from seeking medical attention for more serious issues, is "stop playing and take some anti-inflammatory drugs."  Let’s be clear, rest is important. But if the solution is to tell people to completely stop their career without looking at the whole picture of what’s creating an injury, we’re setting up for a problem. While there are some fabulous medical professionals out there willing to look deeper, many musicians don't seek help as quickly as they might otherwise because they receive a less-than-helpful answer for a long term solution.  If music is your profession and how you make money, then having a medical professional dismiss your concerns is incredibly insulting.  

Also, about those anti-inflammatory drugs- inflammation is your body's way of bring more blood to an area that has been damaged, irritated, infected, etc.  It can be a way of protecting against further damage, (unless we're talking chronic inflammation, which changes the type of cells present at the site), and is accompanied by pain, swelling, redness, and heat.  When we constantly and repetitively take NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), we are disrupting our body's process for dealing with tissue damage.  

"Overuse of the muscles causes cells to break down, releasing waste products, which produces pain and inflammation.  Cleanup crews in the form of white blood cells, known as macrophages, carry away the cellular debris.  If you take anti-inflammatory drugs, the natural inflammation process is disrupted and instead of being cleansed away in the bloodstream, the trash settles into scar tissue."  (Emil Pascarelli, Repetitive Strain Injury for Computer Users, New York: Wiley, 1994) 

Interesting.  Another stat I heard in an interview with Jonathan FitzGordon stated that while Americans make up only 4.5% of the world's population, we use 80% of the world's (!) pain-killers.  Yikes!  Maybe it's time to reconsider a few things?

2.  While healthcare reform is a great thing for us musicians, especially freelancers, it's been a long time coming, and many of us have had to pay for some expensive stuff along the way.  Because of my pre-existing condition, I was denied healthcare and paid out of pocket, which was awful.  Even now, many insurance policies have a high deductible which may discourage patients from seeking the treatment they need because of the high up front cost.   (If a deductible is $1500, that means that you will pay all costs up to that deductible, which can be a lot of money!  MRI's are very expensive...)  In addition, that can prevent musicians from getting the PT, regular check ups, and care they need long-term.

3.  Many homeopathic and alternative treatments are not covered by insurance- acupuncture, chiropracter, rolfing, etc.  For a musician in a professional orchestra with a good salary, that might be ok, but for a freelancer or someone with a lower salary, paying $140 for one session is prohibitive.  I had a rolfing session (structural integration) which was amazing, and really changed how I felt in my muscles and soft tissues, but it was really expensive and I can't justify going again for a long time.  I would love to see more professionals offer their services at a discounted or sliding rate for people who could benefit from their services but can't afford it.  I know there are quite a few great community acupuncture clinics in the US-what about sliding scale rates for other modalities?  Yoga, pilates, and gyms can be outrageously (!) expensive, and I know that also turns people off too.  In my fantasy land, orchestras, schools, and arts organizations would make health a priority for their employees/students by supporting these resources, rather than expecting students to pay out of pocket.

4.  Many musician injuries are chronic.  A musician might stop playing for a bit, and feel ok, and then 6 months later, the pain comes back.  We need to both look at our own actions and how we're contributing to our own pain, but we also need medical professionals who are interested in creating long term change, not just a treatment of symptoms.  It's a combination of taking responsibility for one's own health, combined with assistance from homeopathic and allopathic folks interested in changing the problem, not the symptoms.

5.  Lastly, it's really hard to be injured, in pain, or with undiagnosed symptoms of illness. A few years ago, I was consistently unwell.  I had headaches, digestion issues, low energy, etc., many of which were difficult to treat or identify.  After a period of a few months, I was eventually diagnosed with a non-cancerous pituitary brain tumor, which explained a lot of my issues.  Yet, during that time of non-diagnosis, I felt terrible.  Generally, we like to take steps in maintaining our health, to be in control if possible.  If we move enough and eat vegetables and sleep well, we expect to feel ok.  When those things don't happen, it can be devastating, regardless of the injury or issue.  RSI's don't go away quickly, and there's rarely a quick fix solution.  The process of healing and diagnosis can be very stressful in and of itself, especially if the body doesn't heal itself quickly.  That combines with the stress of school or a job and a lack of compassion in both the medical and job/education setting can be damaging long term.     


Is Yoga for Everyone? Yes...and No.

Many of you know me as a violist/yoga teacher, which often leads people to think that I want everyone to do yoga.  This is not true, and here's why: Yoga is not a magical therapeutic movement modality, as many people seem to think it is, and many "traditional" poses can be quite injurious. Yoga still has the power to be a transformative and amazing movement modality, but not all yoga practices and classes are equal, nor are they all beneficial for musicians (and normal people).   Side note, the initial conception of yoga was multilayered, not just consisting of poses.  There are other limbs of yoga that are fantastic and worth exploring, they just don't always come up in the context of a one hour class.

BKS Iyengar shows off a HUGE range of shoulder mobility here in downward facing dog, which is not necessarily how the pose should look or should feel on anyone's body.  (Nor should everyone try downward facing dog at all!)

BKS Iyengar shows off a HUGE range of shoulder mobility here in downward facing dog, which is not necessarily how the pose should look or should feel on anyone's body.  (Nor should everyone try downward facing dog at all!)

Yoga asana, as taught in the west, is undergoing a revolution of thought, in that for many years, teachers and students have perpetuated the notion that "any pose is possible if you practice diligently."  This is simply not true, nor is it a helpful notion if you're working with restriction or past injury.  Every single body is different in terms of bony restriction, muscles, etc., and not every pose is right for every person.  I will most likely never get my foot behind my head, and I'm totally fine with that.

You may have heard comments in a classroom like "find your edge" and "push your limit" juxtaposed with contradictory statements like "listen to your body."  What the heck does that even mean?  If you're a musician with wrist issues or shoulder issues, those comments are not helpful, and don't help to find individual limits.  In addition, a majority of traditional yoga poses will put extra weight on the wrists (in extension, no less), and put the shoulders into extreme ranges of motion.  There is often a praising of people who can do the "hard poses" which often demand a lot of flexibility, often in extreme ranges, which shouldn't really be the "goal."  I've been in many a yoga class in which a difficult backbend series was called out, and the most bendy person was used as an example for what You or I might achieve if we work hard.  This is not necessarily true, and not necessarily in line with my goals as a movement practitioner.  For that reason, I've been re-evaluating my yoga practice and changing how I teach movement and yoga over the last few years.  I no longer seek out intense, end-range glorifying yoga classes, and I have a lot less attachment to specific complex poses.  I'm happy to never be the "demo" body for deep or complex poses, and I'd rather do my own thing in the back.  I love slow, down-regulating practices, that allow me to mindfully move with my body.  I also do other movement practices besides yoga, and don't expect yoga to be a complete body workout/movement plan.  Here are some considerations for starting yoga or just rethinking your yoga practice.

1. If you're interested in trying yoga but have a history of arm, wrist, or shoulder injuries, look for a class that has gentle, hatha, yoga therapy, slow, etc. in the title.  Even if you're healthy, it's great to start with the basics, even if you're a health and active person.    The more dynamic styles (flow, vinyasa, ashtanga) are difficult to jump right into, and often don't offer a range of accommodations for traditional poses (such as plank, chaturanga, DFD).  There isn't always time to break down poses either, as it is assumed that one is already familiar with them.

Kino McGregor is a famous (and pretty darn flexible) ashtanga teacher.  I have ZERO interest in getting here, nor is that really even on the radar for me.  If you can do it, great, if not, you can still live a happy yoga life without it.

Kino McGregor is a famous (and pretty darn flexible) ashtanga teacher.  I have ZERO interest in getting here, nor is that really even on the radar for me.  If you can do it, great, if not, you can still live a happy yoga life without it.

2. Doctors often tell patients to practice yoga if they have back pain, or tell them to strengthen their core.  This is not the most helpful advice, as there isn't necessarily a correlation between core strength and back pain.  More importantly, there are a million styles of yoga, and many would in fact be challenging for managing back pain.   Meeting with a teacher one on one, working with a yoga therapist, going to class aimed at back pain ...these will help more than a general class.   Group classes are not always a great way to get specialized attention, and one on one is infinitely more helpful, especially if you come in with injuries or a pain history.

3.  Read the biographies of your teachers or possible teachers.  Look for teachers with anatomical knowledge and experience who can tailor movement to you.  The last thing you want is a teacher who can't help you with form or modification, or who has no experience with shoulder or wrist injuries.

4. Try not to think of yoga as your workout.  When we think of yoga in this way, we often gravitate towards hot room/hard poses/move fast, which can often cloud our integrity of movement, especially if we're vulnerable physically.  If you're healthy and have never had a problem with hot room vinyasa/bikram, that's great, but for a beginner or sensitive person, I would say start slow and at room temperature!

5.  Ask yourself why you're doing yoga, what you like about it, and what your goals are.  (To be more flexible, to learn how to breathe better, to combine mind and body, whatever).  Make sure that the class you're attending serves that goal, and if not, try a different class, or a different movement practice.

6.  And lastly, only do as much as you can with integrity.  This is something I try to apply to most movement practices (crossfit! weight lifting!), but only do as much as you can with integrity of movement, good alignment, and feeling like you can breathe.  If a teacher or class is pushing you to a place you're not comfortable or able to go, don't do it.  I've skipped MANY a teacher cue, and done just fine.

At the end of the day, I like many things about yoga, and I dislike many things about yoga.  (That's a rant for a different day and a different blog).  I also like walking, swimming, jumping, lifting weights (yes), pilates, and trying different movement practices.  As a teacher, I also want my students and colleagues to be strong, mobile, and pain-free.  If another movement practice takes them there, that's great.  It doesn't have to be yoga.

10 Things I Learned While Recovering from Reconstructive Hand Surgery

by Kelly Mollnow Wilson

I am a professional flutist, teacher, Licensed Andover Educator, wife and mother who has successfully completed the long journey of recovery from reconstructive hand surgery. I share my story here to let other injured musicians out there know that they are not alone and that it is possible to recover from a potentially career-ending injury.

The Injury:

Pre-surgical splint to immobilize MCP joint and a kid version designed and built out of duct tape by my youngest child.

Pre-surgical splint to immobilize MCP joint and a kid version designed and built out of duct tape by my youngest child.

In the fall of 2012, I injured the base of my index finger on my left hand.The new flute I had purchased in August had a different arrangement of keys than the old flute, and this design change was causing me pain. My symptoms improved after I stopped playing this specific flute and took a month off from playing. Unfortunately, my right hand slipped off the edge of the bath tub while helping my youngest daughter one night and my left hand contacted the bottom curve of the tub with fingers hyperextended, bearing the whole weight of my body. The main point of contact was the base of my left index finger and there was an audible w “pop” from inside my hand. The eventual diagnosis was a ruptured sagittal band at the MCP joint of my left hand index finger and damage to the radial collateral ligament, which connects hand bone to finger bone. The MCP joint is the metacarpophalangeal joint or the big knuckle where the finger meets the hand. The sagittal band is connective tissue that is part of the extensor complex, goes around the joint capsule and keeps the extensor tendons tracking over the middle of the knuckle when you make a fist. The extensor tendons are the ropy things you see on the top of your hand when you make a fist. They should be centered over the knuckles. In my case, the extensor tendon of my index finger was pulling towards the valley between index and middle fingers, “the valley of doom” according to my doctor and there was significant pain when lateral force was applied to the joint. For a flutist, this is a really big deal because the base of the index finger is one of three areas of support for the flute, this finger has to hyperextend and it has to operate a key that needs to be closed for the majority of the notes on flute. Conservative treatment consisting of splinting the MCP joint failed, leaving only a surgical option. My surgery was done at the end of March 2013 and was considered best possible outcome because no hardware or extra tissue harvested from elsewhere was needed to repair the shredded and stretched connective tissue. My surgeon was able to put it all back together and sent me out the door to hand therapy. [Healing My Clipped Wing chronicles the whole recovery process in weekly installments if you want more details about the specifics of the injury and the process leading up to surgery.]

First picture after cast was removed 4/3/13.  Greenish tinge and the pen markings put on pre-op by my surgeon.

First picture after cast was removed 4/3/13.  Greenish tinge and the pen markings put on pre-op by my surgeon.

1) It is often difficult and time consuming to get the correct diagnosis. Four doctors were consulted before I received an accurate diagnosis. My range of motion and ability to move in directions that I shouldn’t have be able to do with the injury I had sustained made the initial diagnosis tricky. I suspect that many musicians would fit into this category. Do not stop looking for answers to a medical problem when you don’t get a definitive answer. Keep asking questions. Sometimes, it’s a matter of finding the right medical professional. Other times, the diagnosis comes as a result of eliminating things that can’t be wrong. For me, there was no neurological issue according to the neurologist, so I was sent back to the orthopedic specialists. You have to be persistent and advocate aggressively for yourself.

One of the exercise 4/9/13.  Sutures still in place. 

One of the exercise 4/9/13.  Sutures still in place. 

2) Hand therapy (any kind of rehab therapy) is both wretched and fabulous. Wretched: I was fortunate to have access to fantastic hand therapists, but hand therapy is not a fun thing. Therapy exercises hurt, period. My first set of rehab homework consisted of 14 different exercises, all of which need to be repeated 10 times, with 4-5 sets of the whole thing per day. Rehab started 6 days post-op, before sutures were even removed. The complete set of exercises took 75 minutes, including the ice time after and it was taking 5 hours per day. It’s incredibly frustrating and devastating to issue a movement command to a finger and have virtually nothing happen as a result. Each week, I’d go to my appointment feeling optimistic that I had improved on the week’s exercises, only to be given a bunch of new ones that I couldn’t do. Scar massage is another thing that I didn’t even know was a “thing” and involves manipulating the incision site to prevent adhesion and desensitize the nerve endings. There’s a reason they prescribe pain meds during this time - you need them to be able to do the work. Fabulous: Therapy works when you do it. There’s a reason for everything they are asking you do and if you do it, you will get better. If you want to reach your goal, you have to do the work because there is no movement shortcut.

4/28/13  I can get my hand onto my favorite coffee mug, but can't yet pick it up! 

4/28/13  I can get my hand onto my favorite coffee mug, but can't yet pick it up! 

3) Body mapping knowledge helps with rehab exercises. As a long time Andover Educator, I’ve taught lots of musicians how their bodies work during the movements of music making. There was not much instruction about what specific muscles in my hand where supposed to be engaged to produce the movements required by each of the exercises. When I asked the hand therapists, they would tell me, but they said that most people don’t want to know. So, I used my own experience as a somatic educator to work smarter. The first thing was to find out exactly which muscle(s) should be working for each exercise, as well as which muscle(s) should not be trying to help. Muscles are usually found in pairs, when one contracts, the other releases into length. I used the Visible Body Muscles 3D app on my iPad as well as Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel and Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Germain-Calais. I went through each exercise and wrote on instruction sheet the name of the muscle, its origin and insertion points. Body maps can be continually refined and knowledge is power. Visually, I was able to direct my focus to where the muscle in question was supposed to be moving. Even if there was no movement at the finger tip, the muscle can still be working. I reminded myself continually that these exercises are whole body movements, not just finger or hand movements, and that I always needed to keep the part within the context of the whole. I forced myself to have feet on the floor, butt firmly in the seat balanced on rocker bones, leading movements with my head, and not allowing myself to contract around the injured part and hold my breath. I started doing the exercises with both hands, mirroring each other, using the good side to teach the bad side. I took my iPad with the Visible Body anatomy app to each appointment and asked many questions until I was clear about what was supposed to moving. I also needed to ask about how to know where the boundary is between “pain that’s necessary for movement” and “pain that is a signal that you’ve exceeded the range of motion for that day.” To get the most effective results, one has to work as closely to that boundary line as possible, without going over.

4/28/13  Lots of progress with range of motion and sutures finally out.

4/28/13  Lots of progress with range of motion and sutures finally out.

4) Waiting is hard and patience is, indeed, a virtue.  It’s no fun waiting to see if your body can heal itself while you’re stuck in splint for months, waiting for the next available surgery time slot, waiting for your body to heal a surgical incision, waiting for a grown up to come home because you weren’t able to teach a preschooler to open the safety cap on the pain meds. I was released from hand therapy after 3 months because my range of motion and strength were at acceptable levels; however, I couldn’t come close to playing my flute. It was very clear that what musicians require in terms of hand usage is much more specific than the general population. Scar tissue remodels for up to two years after surgery and the therapists had nothing to offer me. Time and effort are the secret ingredients. Trust in the process even when it doesn’t proceed on your chosen time schedule. Sometimes, the “process” is hard to believe in. This seems to go against everything we know about pain: “if it hurts, don’t do it” and “leave the cut alone, let it heal without picking the scab.” With hand therapy, it seems exactly the opposite... “yes, you must move it when it hurts if you ever want to move it again” and “yes, massage the most painful spot...over and over again.”

5) The emotional impact of a injury can be just as overwhelming as the physical impact. In hindsight, I would have benefited from working with a mental health provider and, now, I always encourage that with students who are dealing with a severe injury. Here’s some of my emotional mess:

Devastation - I've spent years and years learning my art form and now I can't do it all for an indefinite period of time?

Guilt - Why should this injury be such a "Big Deal" to me when I have friends, relatives, and colleagues dealing with chronic health issues like cancer? 

Anger - Why is the universe conspiring against me?

Lack of trust - So I did what the doctor and therapist said, 100% compliance with all instructions, and now I'm worse? Is the diagnosis right? Do these people know what they're doing?

Frustration - So there's really nothing I can do except wait?

Disappointment - Having to turn down and cancel professional engagements is hard. Accidents happen and people get hurt; however, we all work hard to get the gigs and who wants to have to cancel? When will the next opportunity come around?

Financial stress - Luckily for me, my ability to feed and clothe my family doesn't depend on my ability to generate an income. This is not so for other musicians.

Self map issues - If I've mapped my self as a flutist, what I am without the flute? If I'm a band director, what am I without a band? How can I be a musician who can’t make any music?

Impatience - I know how to regain my playing skills, once the _____________ (insert injury) heals. Come on, already!

Lack of trust in my own judgment - How can I teach other musicians how their bodies work when I hurt myself on my own stupid flute and bathtub?

Loss of independence - I hate having to ask for help, but I need help to floss my teeth, zip my pants, cut my food and put ponytails in my kids’ hair.

All of the my toys for hand therapy.

All of the my toys for hand therapy.

6) It takes a team. In my case, I worked with a hand surgeon, hand therapists, acupuncturist and naturopath physician, Alexander Technique teacher, physical therapist, Feldenkrais practitioner, a medical massage therapist, several chiropractors, and a NeuroKinetic therapist. They are all masters of their own area and helped me heal various aspects of my injury. No single modality has all the answers. I also had my home team - my husband, family, and kids all working together to make everything go as smoothly as possible. My older child took over cutting my meat and vegetables at dinner time and my youngest was the pepper mill grinder & salt shaker.

4/20/13  Hanging by left hand from kids' bar on playground.

4/20/13  Hanging by left hand from kids' bar on playground.

7) Dysfunctional patterns can exist for long after the need for them has passed. It took well over a year for me to eliminate the dysfunctional holding pattern on my entire left side. I knew that this pattern was there and I took steps on my own to address it, yet I needed the help of the professionals listed in #6 to eliminate the pattern. The hand therapists only care about the hand in isolation, they’re not interested in the rest of the arm or body. The hand surgeon only cares about the stability of the structures. Hand surgeons are amazing, being able to go into a incredibly complicated area and fix what is broken without damaging anything else. They all did their jobs well, but I still had a gimpy left side. My left arm was pulled in and up towards my body, the universal “broken arm/hand” pose. I would startle immediately if anybody made a sudden movement towards my entire left arm. I had a panic attack at the 3rd grade chorus concert because people were too close my hand in the crowded bleachers at the school. I lost muscle mass in my left arm and torso, which is not surprisingly with the 5 months of restricted activity prior to surgery and the whole rehabilitation process. I returned to weight training and got a pull-up bar for Mother’s Day to work on both grip and upper body strength. I did lots of constructive rest, inhibition and redirection to convince my nervous system that my hand was ok. And it is.

Pre-performance 4/25/16

Pre-performance 4/25/16

8) Relearning to play is both humbling and exhilarating. When I was finally cleared to begin with the flute, my doctor said “You can play as long as you don’t go crazy and stick with baby stuff, not notey flute stuff with low load/high frequency.” This translates to a few minutes a day at first and I had to start with 1 and 2 minutes at a time. Everything had to be relearned. Interestingly, when doing a Skype lesson with a trusted colleague, her first statement was “Do you know what you’re doing with your head?” Of course I didn’t, because I was focused entirely on my surgical site. This is one of the tenets of basic Body Mapping - music making is a whole body activity, always, and I was focusing all of my awareness on a specific part at the expense of the inclusive awareness of my whole body. The desire to get the flute back in my hands was so high, just like when I was a 4th grader and couldn’t wait to get that shiny thing in my hands. I used to be a technical whiz kid, the faster the better. Now, I have to learn the notey stuff slowly and appreciate what countless students of mine have had to deal with when learning fast passages slowly. I have to be smarter about how I practice because I don’t have unlimited hours.  My practice window is about 90 minutes or less with breaks every 10 minutes or so, on a good day. Being more mindful and efficient is always beneficial. This is another area where my knowledge of Body Mapping was an advantage in relearning the movements that I need to play my flute, as well as being aware of and eliminating the movements that don’t help.

Flutes onstage 4/26/16

Flutes onstage 4/26/16

9) Modifying the instrument isn’t cheating. Pre-injury, I would have classified myself as a purist. I thought that if people were using their bodies well, then there was no need for any external modification on the flute. I’ve since changed my tune! When I first returned to playing, I started on a vertical headjoint, loaned to me by a very generous individual and it allowed me to play without any contact of the base of index finger with the flute tube. Since then, I’ve had many different things added to my flutes including a key extension, which raises the height of the left index finger key and also makes it closer to the others, a rubber pencil grip sliced in half or a Dr. Scholl’s corn pad stuck onto the flute tube as padding, a right hand thumb support made of cork which allows more of the flute weight to go into my right hand thumb (made by Alexa Still at Oberlin), and a custom foot joint key cluster done by John Lunn. Everybody is different and if modifying the instrument makes it easier for you to do what you want to do, then do it. What works for one person might not work for the next person. Who cares what it looks like?

10) I’m a better, more compassionate teacher and human for having had this experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but I now empathize with musicians who have pain and injury. I understand the terrible feeling of frustration and emptiness that goes along with not being able to make music. Every person that you meet has a story, has things going on in his or her life that you know nothing about. I’m more efficient in my practice and more respecting of my physical limitations. I can stand up and say that this will not last forever and you’ll get through it, I hope. I can say to injured musicians that they are artists and will always be artists even if they can’t play their instrument or sing right now. My injury was not fun, but it was something that could be fixed and I was so incredibly fortunate because sometimes there is no easy fix. It seems utterly ridiculous to write that surgery is an easy fix because no part of this entire process was easy. I am thrilled to say that I’m back performing with the Aella Flute Duo, I’m just finishing up a semester-long Intro to Body Mapping course at Oberlin Conservatory and, just last week, I had a gig as part of a flute and percussion duo performing for dancers which required me to play alto flute, C flute and piccolo for the first time since my surgery. My professional interests have changed as a result of putting myself and my hand back together with lots of help from various professionals. Specifically I want to be able to help other musicians directly through manual therapy and will be starting a massage therapy program in the fall with the eventual goal of becoming a NeuroKinetic therapist. My goal is to be able to teach movement and awareness, prescribe corrective exercises as needed, manually release muscle tension and scar adhesions, and correction muscular imbalances to allow musicians to do what they do without pain and restriction, as they strive to realize their full potential as musicians.

About the author:

Kelly Mollnow Wilson, a Licensed Andover Educator since 2007, currently teaches privately and is a freelance flutist in Northeast Ohio. She has presented Body Mapping workshops at Cleveland Institute of Music, the International Flute Symposium at West Virginia University, and at the National Flute Association Conventions in 2006, 2012 and 2014 and is currently teaching Body Mapping at Oberlin Conservatory. She is a founding member of the Aella Flute Duo (, which will be performing at the NFA Convention this summer in San Diego. Kelly has nine years of teaching experience in the instrumental music department of the Wooster City Schools in Wooster, OH and is the lead author/flute author of Teaching Woodwinds: A Guide for Students and Teachers. See for more information.

Why Bother Stretching?

A few months ago, I opened a big ol' can of worms with the discussion of how stretching doesn't actually lengthen muscles.  Now, it's time to address that subject again, with the help of Stretch Armstrong, which some of you may remember from your youth. 

If you're a child of the 70's or 80's, you may remember this toy, clad in a speedo or a tee-shirt, depending on the decade that you lived in. 

If you're a child of the 70's or 80's, you may remember this toy, clad in a speedo or a tee-shirt, depending on the decade that you lived in. 

In case you missed our previous chat, take a moment to catch up on the last post in case things are a bit confusing.  Basically, in many movement disciplines, teachers and professionals perpetuate the idea that we must stretch muscles to lengthen them.  Period.  I went to a few yoga classes this weekend, both of which said this.  "We just lengthened your hamstrings a bit so you should feel open."  Being the slight know it all that I am, it's time to correct that notion and learn a little more about the science of stretch.

This pose, a pigeon variation, is often a "dream goal" pose for yoga folks.  Does this degree of spinal flexibility necessarily serve us all?  Perhaps not.

This pose, a pigeon variation, is often a "dream goal" pose for yoga folks.  Does this degree of spinal flexibility necessarily serve us all?  Perhaps not.

Back to Stretch Armstrong-there's an idea in yoga and in other movement disciplines that the infinite stretchability is the goal, AKA.  stretchier=better=magical poses and feats.  Yet, like Stretch Armstrong, when we stretch things, our body (hopefully!) goes back to the initial tissue length...depending on how intensely we stretched our tissues.

-Our connective tissues have about 4% healthy stretching range, meaning that your tissues can "stretch" about 4% healthily.  Collagen starts to break down at 8% of your stretching range, which means that you are in a damaging range, risky for muscle tears, etc.  (Thanks Jules Mitchell for the stats!) This means that YOU ARE NOT STRETCH ARMSTRONG, ladies and gentleman, nor should you strive for such a feat.  There is a healthy end range of stretch for all of us, and it doesn't need to be pushed beyond reason.  (Also, 4% is not very much, in case you were wondering, which is why I stick to the logic that muscles are not being lengthened much with stretching.)

- Our flexibility is heavily governed by our tolerance, which means that our nervous system prevents us from going into ranges that we don't frequently use (like the splits!), because it's unfamiliar and potentially risky.  Over the course of a yoga class, for example, your tolerance will change because your nervous system is allowing range, the muscle isn't actually lengthening.  (Remember how you might be flexible in a hot yoga class and then the next day, it's like it never happened?  Your hamstrings are the same as ever?  That's because of a phenomena called Creep and Recovery (which is how the body recovers from stretching back to its normal resting position).  Stretch Armstrong does not have this capacity, nor does he have a nervous system (unless he's some hybrid of Chucky and that's just eerie).

I took this picture at a zoo last year- I loved the one sedentary zebra juxtaposed with the crazy rolling zebra.  We tend to be a teensy bit sedentary which affects our range of motion and flexibility-lets move more, folks!

I took this picture at a zoo last year- I loved the one sedentary zebra juxtaposed with the crazy rolling zebra.  We tend to be a teensy bit sedentary which affects our range of motion and flexibility-lets move more, folks!

What is flexiblity?  Basically, flexibility is having a normal range of motion in your whole body.  Therefore, if you DO NOT have normal range of motion, stretching can help work that range and then it's time to strengthen.  Remember that stretching for stretching's sake will not help much, but a combination of stretching and strengthening will help create sustainable change.  Moving frequently in more ranges of motion will help most (read more here!).  Time out: I've done yoga for 7-8 years and stretched my hamstrings for a long time, with little change.  What helped is actually getting a standing desk, wearing flat shoes, and walking more.   Fascinating- I needed to gain strength in more ranges.  Lunges, standing yoga poses, walking, squats- these are all strengthening poses and movements. 

  Whatever range you're trying to change (hamstrings, shoulders,etc.) also requires strength at that range- you don't want to stretch without supported strength.  So while Stretch Armstrong's stretchability implies that muscles are infinitely lengthen-able, in fact, your goal should be to expand your range first and then strengthen.  Don't just keep stretching and "lengthening" tissues!  Read more about your "short hamstrings" here with Jules Mitchell's awesome post.

I opened up a chat with some of my fellow teachers last month inquiring about why we stretch, and I love what my colleagues had to say (Thanks Alex E. and Alexa P.!)  Here's what one of my teachers, the brilliant and fabulous Sarah Court said, "Losing healthy range of motion sets you up for injury.  Stretching is not about trying to change the length of anything, rather you are trying to optimize overall mobility and not lose movement options from lack of use." 

The conclusion?  Stretch (a little bit) to regain mobility and move better, then strengthen and move more.  Stretching the same thing every day?  Maybe not so much, unless you're Stretch Armstrong in the hands of a seven year old. 

Powered by Squarespace. Home background image by kayleigh miller.