Stretch therapy might be the thing to grease up those stiff and creaky joints you’ve been complaining about on Twitter.
Stretching might conjure up pictures of soccer players enthusiastically lunging during warmups or prima ballerinas working their pointe shoes up on the barre. It’s true that many athletes use stretching techniques to prep for sporting performances. But stretch therapy could potentially help everyone’s physical mobility.
Stretch therapy helps with functional movement — the regular activity you need to do to live comfortably. That could mean either getting off the sofa to make coffee or running a marathon (if that’s your idea of fun).
Stretch therapy aims to restore natural, pain-free movement using stretching techniques, massage, and exercises. It can be a powerful tool for boosting your quality of life. Here’s why you should consider giving it a try.
“Stretch therapy” is an umbrella term for various techniques that treat physical issues linked to muscle and joint restriction. It aims to improve range of motion and performance and help prevent future injuries by working with your fascia, muscles, and tendons.
The fascia is a thin and stretchy layer of connective tissue that surrounds your organs, bones, nerves, and muscles. It has multiple layers filled with liquid to allow for smooth movement (smoothment?).
Certain factors can cause the fascia to become thick and sticky (thicky? OK, we’ll stop). This means it tightens around your muscles, limiting your mobility.
Stretch therapy is a scientific system that includes:
The goal is to remodel and strengthen your fascia so your movement is re-patterned and you can do even ordinary tasks with more ease and flexibility.
For some people, it’s a game-changer. And you don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from stretch therapy — everyone can benefit.
Stretch therapy aims to treat:
- movement restrictions and distortions
- muscle and tissue tightness
- aches and pains
The idea is that stretch therapy increases or improves range of motion, reducing your likelihood of injuries. (Hooray! Injuries suck!)
Even if you’re not an athlete, your everyday life likely involves performing repetitive actions. Over time, this may lead to imbalances and pain. Injuries can further change your movement patterns, leading to restrictions and potentially even more injuries.
You may be able to address these imbalances by increasing the flexibility of the muscles, tendons, and fascia around your joints.
Most research on stretch therapy isn’t conclusive. Some studies show that consistently applied stretch therapy techniques can improve the flexibility of muscles and connective tissue. But that means you’ll need to maintain a stretching routine to see improvements.
A stretch therapist tailors your program to your unique needs.
They’ll apply various techniques and exercises to improve your range of motion and quality of life. This means your stretch therapy sessions will probably look vastly different from your Uncle Joe’s. The motions your therapist recommends may also change as your condition improves.
If you’ve never been to stretch therapy before, your session will likely start with a thorough physical exam. Your therapist will ask you about your particular injury. If stiffness or limited movement is your main issue, they’ll evaluate your:
- medical history
- range of motion
Your therapist will then create a treatment plan to address your issues and aim to prevent any further injuries. Sessions may involve whole-body stretches from head to toe or focus on a particularly stiff or troublesome area.
A session might involve a series of low impact stretching exercises to strengthen or stretch an area and relieve your discomfort. The therapist may use myofascial release, meaning they use their hands, fingers, or elbows or other equipment to apply pressure directly to the tissues where your muscles are restricted or knotted.
They’ll often follow this by applying ice and heat treatment to the area.
After the stretch session, you might feel more flexible and mobile right away, as your tension decreases and your circulation enjoys a boost. But you may feel some soreness the next day, like you would from hitting the gym after a break.
What about fascial stretch therapy?
During fascial stretch therapy (FST), you’ll lie on a massage table and a therapist will jiggle and wiggle your connective tissue (fascia). FST focuses on the whole connective tissue system throughout your body rather than on isolated muscles and tissues in the affected area.
The therapist focuses on your joint capsules, starting at the deepest level and progressing through all the layers of your fascia. They’ll assess your range of motion and try to restore full function. This will lend a (flexible) helping hand to your strength, flexibility, and performance.
You shouldn’t feel any pain during this therapy, and many people experience almost instant results. Your therapist will also help you develop a home exercise program so you can continue making improvements outside your appointments.
Stretch therapy may be able to help you:
- increase your flexibility and range of motion
- improve blood flow to your muscles
- improve your posture
- reduce or prevent back pain
- reduce stress and calm your mind
- boost your performance in physical activities
- reach things on the top shelf
OK, maybe not the last one. But does research back it up? Well, kinda. A 2014 study found that stretching helps improve muscle function, mobility, and performance.
But there haven’t been any large-scale studies to confirm the benefits of stretch therapy. A small 2012 study in people ages 60 to 70 suggests that stretch therapy techniques might help improve the range of motion in the shoulders and hips.
And research from 2020 suggests that stretching exercises can reduce injury rates and reduce the risk of non-contact injuries during soccer training.
Nevertheless, other research back in 2012 found that stretching doesn’t benefit everyone, and responses may vary depending on your athletic and medical history.
If you’ve been cleared by a qualified medical professional to try stretch therapy, it should have only positive effects. It could help improve your range of motion and athletic performance, even if that involves bending down to cut your toenails rather than doing the 100-meter hurdles.
Maybe. Your insurance may or may not cover stretch therapy, depending on your reason for needing the treatment, your policy details, and how your insurer defines stretch therapists in terms of your coverage.
Confused yet? Thanks, insurance. Let us explain.
As an example, Medicare doesn’t cover massage therapy, but it does cover 80 percent of physical therapy and occupational therapy costs under Part B. So if you receive stretch therapy lumped in with your overall physical therapy treatments, Medicare will pay for 80 percent of your care. #InsuranceWin
But don’t get too excited about insurance (we know, it’s hard). Because stretch therapy includes various therapeutic approaches, you might not find a clear-cut answer in your policy documents. It might be time to pick up the phone and contact your agent to check on coverage.
Your insurer may cover stretch therapy as part of your extended health benefits package. Many insurance policies cover massage therapy and related services. But check first, so you’re not left with any nasty billing surprises.
For most people, stretch therapy is beneficial and can reduce the risk of injury. But in some cases, it may be better to avoid or modify a stretch therapy routine.
Although many athletes use stretch therapy to help them achieve high levels of sporting prowess, there’s a slight risk that using it directly before hardcore events may negatively affect performance.
A 2016 review found that when athletes held static stretches for longer than 60 seconds, it could switch the muscle off and reduce its force by up to 4.6 percent, leading to a temporary decrease in performance.
On the flip side, another 2016 study found no difference in athletic performance between a static stretch protocol and a running warmup.
Considering these mixed results, if athletic performance is a concern for you, it’s best to see what works for you and your bod. There are many alternative warmups, like active stretching, jogging, and other forms of movement that may suit you better.
Having hypermobile joints means you’re super flexible — in other words, your joints can move beyond the typical range of motion.
While being able to imitate a gibbon sounds pretty neat, for us humble humans, hypermobility can cause pain and joint instability — and this can increase the risk of injuries. Our arms and legs just aren’t meant to go that way.
If you experience hypermobility, you may need to avoid some static stretches and follow the advice of a qualified healthcare pro. Although you may still feel stiff and creaky, other forms of therapy — like soft tissue massage, movement exercises, and muscle strengthening — might be better for you.
There isn’t a universal stretch therapy certification, and being certified in stretch therapy isn’t the same as being licensed. So be careful, because your joints are precious and it’s important to make sure your therapist is certified.
To offer stretch therapy in a clinical setting, a person has to be a licensed physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractic professional. Licensure means that the therapist has legal authority and qualifications to provide these services.
In a gym, a fitness or yoga instructor could hold a stretch therapy certification. Many private organizations can grant stretch therapy certifications without the regulatory oversight of a medical organization.
If you look into some of the available certifications, you’ll even see that some are entirely online, with zero hands-on practice, and can be completed in just a couple of days.
Keep this in mind and do your homework when checking out stretch therapists. Make sure the one you choose is licensed in your area and has adequate experience and qualifications.
How to find a qualified stretch therapy practitioner
Trusting your body to an unlicensed practitioner may not be the best move. No matter how they market themselves, they won’t have the same depth of education as someone who holds a medical license.
An excellent way to start looking for a qualified stretch therapist is to ask your primary care doctor for recommendations. They may have someone who visits their office and offers these services.
Also, ask at a gym or yoga studio, if you go to one. They may even have licensed massage therapists or physical therapists on staff who specialize in fascia stretching.
You can also find a licensed professional on these official association websites:
- American Massage Therapy Association
- American Physical Therapy Association
- American Chiropractic Association
What certifications can a stretch therapy practitioner have?
Aside from board licensing, a stretch therapy practitioner can hold a variety of certifications, including:
- American Sports and Fitness Association Stretching Instructor Certification
- National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching Certification
- National Federation of Personal Trainers Assisted Stretching Certification
If you’re interested in becoming licensed as a stretch therapist, you’ll likely need other qualifications first in personal training, massage therapy, or physical therapy.
Stretch therapy includes massage therapy, stretching, and other methods designed to tackle muscle and joint stiffness.
Although there isn’t a boatload of evidence pointing to stretch therapy as a remedy for every type of ache and pain, it could be helpful. And it has few risks when the correct techniques are used.
If you feel like stretch therapy could benefit you, then look for a licensed, experienced provider in your area.