Assisted Stretching—also sometimes called Assisted Myofascial Neuromuscular Therapy or Assisted Myofascial Stretch Therapy—is a bodywork modality that allows a trained therapist to apply range-of-motion movements to the body on a massage table, with the spine in a safe and supported position.
The therapist is able to move the body into positions that break through hard fascia barriers that may have resulted from injury or a sedentary lifestyle, to gain flexibility and range of motion that would be impossible without expert intervention.
Stretching as a healing technique is certainly not a new concept, as most people will agree it is good for the body to stretch—whether to avoid injury as an athlete, or to retain mobility as we age.
Stretch therapy allows a trained professional to identify each unique body’s limitations in a safe and relaxed position, and work on strengthening problem areas to ensure movement that happens off the table—be it yoga, running, walking or picking up a grandchild—can be done without causing further damage or pain.
There are several techniques therapists can use during an assisted stretching session:
• Resistance Stretching. Developed in the 1980s by Bob Cooley, this is an excellent option for joint rehabilitation, children experiencing growth spurts, and inactive or elderly clients. Since it is geared toward less supple tissue, it is critical to support unstable joints by keeping them contracted during each movement. This technique requires the client to resist up to 10 to 50 percent throughout the back-and-forth stretching motion, which is applied deeper each time.
• Active Stretching, developed by Charles Sherrington in 1904,requires the muscle opposite the one being stretched be contracted throughout the stretch. For example, if the hamstring is being stretched, the client would contract his or her quadriceps as the leg is guided upward. This greatly benefits an individual with an area that is tight due to an imbalance in the opposing muscles. Essentially, when a muscle has stopped firing and is not working with the antagonist muscle, causing pain, this technique wakes up the non-functioning area and relieves the imbalance and pain.
• Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), also called Passive/Contract, developed by Herman Kabat in the 1940s, involves both the stretching and contraction of the targeted muscle. This combination allows the body to gain mobility without forcing a stretch beyond the level of comfort. To apply this method, a client presses back into the therapist to stretch the area, holding the stretch for up to 10 to 30 seconds, thus safely elongating the tissue without injury.
• Passive Stretching is exactly as it sounds; the body is relaxed while being stretched. While most effective when done by a trained therapist, a yawning, full-body stretch done first thing in the morning as we awaken is a form of passive stretching, and in any scenario this type of stretching releases endorphins and relaxes the mind and body.
Which Type of Assisted Stretching Should You Use?
Each body is different, as is each person’s therapeutic goal. For this reason, every stretching style and modality is valuable, and any combination of techniques may be appropriate for each individual session.
A client may have sustained injuries in the past, and be dealing with hard fascial tissue, scar tissue. This person would certainly benefit from an active resistance stretch with added hard fascial release tools. A ballet dancer with exceptional mobility might be faced with unstable joints, so both active and full-range resistant stretching would increase strength without pulling on vulnerable joints, aiding in stronger and more fluid movement.
When applied correctly and in the right areas, all forms of assisted stretching will improve mobility, while also decreasing pain.
Studies have shown that most body pain is associated with muscle imbalance. Having the expertise to assess which muscles are tight versus weak, and focusing on the correct body part is critical to being an effective stretch and massage therapist.
As a person who personally experienced excruciating pain due to bulging discs, I was faced with medication and surgery as my only options. Being professionally stretched, however, relieved my pain naturally, and gave me my life back.
By offering assisted stretching to my clients, I quickly tripled my income. As with massage, consistent treatment is the most effective, and the results of this modality keep them coming back regularly. Adding stretching to the treatment plan enhances massage therapists’ ability to offer a highly effective, individualized approach that sets them apart from other practitioners.
Stretching as We Age
Essentially, aging muscle tissue takes on a beef-jerky consistency, which leads to a slew of issues. As the functionality of joints and muscles is directly linked to the condition of the fascia, when they become inflamed more hard fascia results and tugs on other body parts. Each area of tightness restricts motion, blood flow and oxygen to the healthy tissue, thus causing systemic alignment issues.
By stretching, healthy blood and oxygen floods back to hardened tissue and allows it to become fluid, hydrated and mobile again. This benefits every part of the body and cannot be achieved by exercise alone. Common complaints as we age, such as stiff joints, tight muscles and body aches can be reversed or avoided when stretching is done consistently.
Assisted Stretching and Sedentary Lifestyles
In addition to symptoms associated with aging, we are faced today with primarily sedentary lifestyles, and surrounded by technology that has the body in a constant state of misalignment, whether we are hunched over a laptop computer, a smartphone or a tablet. Even when we relax, we tend to be staring down at a screen.
In fact, a research report by International Data Corporation and Facebook, “Always Connected,” reports 79 percent of people ages 18 to 44 have cellphones with them almost all the time—with only two hours of the waking day spent without it. This has led doctors to coin the term “text neck” for patients presenting with pain due to technology overuse.
With so many factors working against keeping our bodies aligned and flexible, it’s no wonder the demand for stretching has increased.
Benefits of Assisted Stretching
Stretching is often effective for pain, both in muscle and its surrounding fascia, and also improves posture and mobility. With people living and working longer, there is a need for treatment options outside the typical approach of medication and surgery.
By encouraging stretch therapy, massage therapists can play a proactive role in keeping clients feeling youthful and enjoying quality of life. With the right interventions, lack of mobility, body pain and decreased range of motion don’t have to be part of aging.
This article appears in Massage Magazine www.massagemag.com/assisted-stretching-115803/
is a licensed massage therapist and instructor through the Alabama State Board of Massage Therapy. She has been a licensed therapist since 2008 and is a former program director of the therapeutic massage program at Virginia College in Huntsville until July 2017. She is a 2006 graduate of communications from Jacksonville State University and a 2008 graduate of Gadsden State Community College Massage Therapy. Bethany loves teaching therapeutic massage to future therapists and stays up to date on varieties of modalities and techniques.