Let’s say you drove your car this morning, and the engine started sputtering and shuddering, causing you to bounce along the road, ending up in a ditch with a flat tire. Would you fix the tire and continue along your merry way? I hope not.
But this is essentially what so many of us do when we decide to “treat” our back or neck pain by just stretching our back or neck muscles. In many instances, our aches and pains originate from something gone haywire in our joints—whether it’s compromised mechanical function or an impingement or other restriction that limits our range of motion and/or the stability of the joint.
Stretching alone will not address this type of issue, because stretching focuses exclusively on muscles. Specifically, the goal and result of stretching is to elongate tight and shortened muscles. In contrast, mobility training uses movement to free up restrictions in not only muscles, but also ligaments, joint capsules and any related tissue restrictions. To relate back to the car analogy, mobility training is doing the work on the underlying mechanical engine issue, rather than just fixing the resulting flat tire.
Let’s say your lower back hurts. You decide to lie down and do some spine stretches you remember from yoga class, and maybe you even do a couple hamstring stretches, because you read somewhere that tight hamstrings can lead to back pain (true!). Maybe you achieve temporary relief, but the next day the same cycle repeats. It’s likely that you’re dealing with some impingement in your hip joint. (There are endless reasons why our hips get tight, but perhaps the biggest culprit is one that none of us can avoid—sitting.)
Your hip joint is designed for mobility, while your lumbar spine (lower back) is designed for stability. Obviously, your lower back is capable of being mobile, but it doesn’t respond well to being used as a primary mover. It simply wasn’t built for that. But because our bodies are endlessly adaptable, if a tight hip is rendering you unable to move into a particular position, your lower back will pick up the slack and move instead. You might not even notice this movement compensation at first, but over time your lower back will find a way to let you know that it doesn’t like having to take over the work of your hip joints (hello, pain!).
To this end, your spine and hamstring stretches are unlikely to remedy a hip impingement, leaving you wondering why you’re still in pain after continuing a diligent stretching practice. What you need in this instance is a daily regimen of hip mobility exercises which will bring back range of motion and loosen up any tissue restrictions.
To read more about what compromised mobility can mean for your body, click here.