Stretching, massages, handheld gadgets: What works better to relieve muscle stiffness and aches?
Why do your muscles feel stiff easily as you get older? Do massage gadgets work? How does stretching help even if you're not working out?
We all know how a good stretch feels. Just try it on for size right now: Raise both arms above your head, reach up and feel the stretch in your upper body. It feels even better if you’ve been stuck in the same position for a while, like if you’ve been at your desk the whole morning.
As it turns out, stretching isn’t only something you do before and after exercise to minimise injuries and reduce lactic acid levels in your muscles. It is also important to restore blood circulation to the muscles and lengthen them after a period of immobility, said Xu Weijie, a senior physiotherapist from Core Concepts.
That’s because staying in a static position shortens some of your muscles and blood circulation is decreased at the area, he said. Less blood means that less electrolytes and oxygen are reaching those affected muscles, which makes it “more difficult for them to elongate or relax, thus, creating the sensation of tension and stiffness”.
WHY DO MY MUSCLES FEEL STIFF EASILY AS I GET OLDER?
“As we get older, we often develop habits (such as a sedentary lifestyle) that can lead to muscle stiffness,” said Andrew Lau, the founder of Rodandac, an in-home mobile personal training company.
“Much of the pain we experience originates from improper movements early on, which can gradually lead to muscle stiffness over time. With muscle stiffness and pain, people tend to avoid movement, which only leads to increased stiffness. It's a vicious cycle that people can easily get trapped in,” said Lau.
According to Xu, ageing can also bring with it certain changes that worsen muscle stiffness. For instance, older lungs and heart require more effort to collect oxygen and pump fresh, oxygenated blood to your muscles respectively.
Not only that, muscles start to lose mass and function as you age, said Xu. “The chemical reaction for muscle contraction and relaxation becomes less frequent, thus causing tension and stiffness.”
You may also have previous injuries that have created tough scar tissues that aren’t pliable – and these tissues can decrease the healed muscle’s mobility and flexibility, he said.
WHY DO I NEED TO STRETCH WHEN I’M NOT WORKING OUT?
“A common misconception is that if we aren't formally exercising, we don't need to stretch,” said Lau. “However, many don't recognise that our daily activities already constitute exercise.”
Xu likened the function of stretching to blowing up a rubber balloon. “We often pre-stretch the balloon before blowing it up to allow for better elasticity,” he said, and to ensure the balloon does not pop as easily.
Translate that balloon analogy to your body and you can see how stretching enables you to feel at ease with your everyday movements. “To enhance the range of motion, muscles should be flexible and stretching is key to achieving this,” said Lau. “Even when our muscles are tight, it's essential to gradually let them relax. That's why daily stretching is crucial for everyone.”
CAN’T I PAY SOMEONE TO MASSAGE ME INSTEAD?
It depends on what your needs are. Is the source of your muscle soreness caused by a general tightness, or a specific knot or trigger point? New York-based chiropractor Jeffrey Klein said that while stretching is your best bet for tightness, a knot needs to be kneaded.
One way to tell if you have muscle tightness is to look at yourself in the mirror. "You want your hips and shoulders to be level," said Klein. If, for example, one shoulder is lower than the other, it could mean that the muscles on the affected side of your back are tighter – and you’ll need to stretch to elongate them.
If a massage is what you need, Xu said that “the mechanical pressure exerted promotes blood circulation and thus, induces muscle relaxation in the targeted area”. “Massages can often lead to longer lasting relief of one to seven days if done right,” he said.
But if you’re seeking “enduring relief from pain, a consistent stretching routine is the primary avenue to achieve this goal”, said Lau.
CAN HANDHELD MASSAGE DEVICES REPLACE STRETCHING?
There is a myriad of handheld therapy massagers on the market. Can they replace stretching? “Devices are time saving and help someone ease into the act of stretching,” said Lau. “Just as a chef tenderises meat with a mallet”, a massage device can be used first to alleviate muscle tension, so that stretching can be performed with ease," he said.
On the other hand, masseurs or physiotherapists can specifically target and address ligament issues, Lau said. “The challenge is that they can be costly and securing appointments can be time consuming. Daily habits are more consistent and effective compared to just a couple of adjustments a week.”
Xu said that the result of using such gadgets “often depends on whether the individual is using it correctly”. “A trained masseur or physiotherapist would be able to identify the right muscles to work on, be it through massaging or stretching.
"It is not to say that you should choose between one modality and the other. In fact, you can seek guidance from a trained professional and learn how to utilise the gadgets for your own long-term maintenance against muscle tension and stiffness,” said Xu.
AND WHAT ABOUT THIS NEW STRETCHING MAT?
Now, there’s even the heated StretchPad. You don’t have to do anything except lie down on the mat and let it lift, pull, push, twist, roll and adjust your body with its 22 inflatable components to supposedly help ease muscle stiffness from the neck to the hips. It can’t get more passive than that.
So, is using a stretching device such as the StretchPad similar to doing static stretching exercises? “They both put an individual in specific positions to lengthen or shorten a targeted muscle group,” said Xu.
However, static stretching (with or without any device) may pale in comparison to dynamic stretching, he said. “Dynamic stretches require some degree of movement in a body part rather than holding a static posture. Dynamic stretches tend to provide more relief as there is repeated pumping motion, which increases blood flow and lengthens or shortens the target muscle groups better.”