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Stretching vs Strengthening for Pain Management

Stretching vs strengthening: an african american PT helps his patient stretch.

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Table of Contents

Managing pain as an older adult is more complex than in your youth. As you age, it’s easier to get injured, and your body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to.

With so much conflicting information and many treatments available, the path to recovery isn’t always straightforward. When I go over treatment plans with my patients, there’s one question that I almost always get: won’t doing exercises that challenge my muscles cause more pain instead of relieving it? 

The stretching vs. strengthening for pain discussion can be confusing, to say the least. Stretching and strengthening both have their place in recovery. Still, it can take time to determine which will be more effective in helping your condition.

During my years as a physical therapist, I’ve helped many older adults beat their pain, regain their independence, and regain control of their lives with stretching and strengthening exercises. 

In this article, we will cover the differences between stretching vs strengthening your muscles for pain management and how to know which is the best option for you. 

Understanding Stretching

Stretching vs Strengthening: Image of older women stretching in a dance class

Stretching is a critical component of physical wellness, especially as we age. Elongating your muscles helps relieve muscle tension and improve joint range of motion, decreasing the restrictions you feel when you move around.

Simply put, stretching is one of the best ways to maintain mobility and live an active lifestyle. 

The benefits of stretching aren’t limited to just one group; all-star athletes and sedentary older adults can experience positive outcomes from regular stretching. Remember that our muscles lose elasticity as we age, so making stretches a part of your regular wellness routine is especially important. 

Here are a few examples of the way stretching can be an effective tool for pain relief: 

  • Increased Flexibility: By increasing the distance your muscles and joints can move, you’ll experience less pain and restriction of movement when reaching for an object on a high shelf or walking on your favorite trail. 
  • Reduced Muscle Tension: Tense muscles don’t heal and recover, and relaxed muscles don’t. By regularly stretching your muscles, you’ll be able to move with less pain and recover better. 
  • Increased Circulation: Stretching your muscles increases blood flow to the area. Good circulation can help decrease swelling, promote healing, and reduce pain. 
  • Injury Prevention: When your body can move more freely, you’re less likely to hurt yourself. Muscles that are stretched regularly have a wider range of motion, allowing you to do more of the things you love with less pain. 
  • Stress Relief: Stretching reduces muscle tension; when your body is less tense, it can relax. As you stretch, you’re letting your body know it’s okay to let go of that stress and loosen up a little. 

In my work with older adults striving for pain relief, stretching is one of many tools to help with recovery. Each person is unique, and so are their stretching needs, so having a candid conversation with a professional – like your physical therapist – is a great way to learn which types of stretching might be helpful for you.

The Power of Strengthening

Stretching vs strengthening: a group of seniors lift weights and exercise in a fitness class

You may hear “strengthening exercises” and feel hesitant because you aren’t interested in becoming a gym rat.

However, strengthening exercises are meant to help your muscles and joints thrive while building a stronger foundation for your health. 

Conversely, avoiding strengthening exercises can weaken your muscles and joints, potentially turning normal daily activities into a cycle of pain and frustration.

Strengthening exercise doesn’t have to mean lifting heavy weights or hitting the gym for hours on end. In fact, many strengthening exercises that help manage and relieve pain focus on areas with minimal weight or resistance. 

Most of my patients benefit from a combination of strengthening exercises chosen with their daily routines and favorite activities in mind. In some cases, that means getting back into the gym and lifting weights, but in other cases, it can simply be following an online exercise class a few times per week.

Strengthening as a Foundation for Pain Management

Although most older adults might not realize it, muscle strength and improving pain go hand in hand. When your body is strong and stable, you can carry out daily activities with less effort and discomfort and are less likely to get injured.

Over time, your muscles and joints naturally weaken, which is a significant contributing factor to pain. More importantly, when your body is in pain, the natural response is to compensate by moving in a way that feels better. 

Compensation patterns can lead to imbalances that worsen the underlying issue and cause more pain. Strengthening exercises are the best way to correct these imbalances and create a solid foundation that helps your body handle stress more efficiently. 

As you build up weakened muscles, you provide the necessary support around painful areas of your body. For example, many of the older adults that I work with who have weak cores and hip flexors experience compensations in their backs, contributing to chronic lower back pain. 

By strengthening your core, you’re giving your back the support it needs to function correctly while also reducing pain. 

Why Strengthening Over Stretching? 

It may seem counterintuitive that performing exercises that challenge your muscles can help with your pain, but it can help. 

Here are some examples of the ways strengthening your muscles can help you feel better in the long run: 

  • Better Muscle Health: Strengthening exercises challenge your muscles, promote your body’s natural healing process, and help your muscles and tendons heal more quickly.
  • Better Muscular Endurance: Strong muscles allow you to accomplish everyday tasks with less pain and fatigue. 
  • Better Joint Stability: Stable joints allow for more normal movement. Without the proper support, your joints can take on extra stress and become irritated.
  • Reduced Risk of Injury: Strength and stability can help reduce falls and accidents caused by weakened muscles.
  • Correct Compensations: When your body hurts, it finds ways to move that don’t feel as bad. Strengthening weak muscles can correct these compensations, address the underlying issue, and improve pain. 

Gently stretching to reduce your discomfort can be soothing and relaxing and offer some immediate relief. While stretching does feel good, it’s often not the best method to treat your pain in the long run since it won’t correct the underlying issue. 

Strengthening exercises help improve overall function and provide a more effective solution for long-term pain management. This is due to your body’s musculoskeletal structure since pain is often a result of a weakness. If your muscles aren’t strong enough, that means more strain on joints and accompanying pain. 

Over the years, many of my patients have been surprised at the pain relief that strengthening exercises provide when stretching alone couldn’t offer those same results.

While stretching has its place in health and wellness—especially for short-term relief and improving flexibility—strengthening helps your body handle the stressors that cause pain.

When to Stretch and When to Strengthen 

Stretching and strengthening both offer pain relief benefits, so how do you know which is best for you? 

Understanding the differences between the two and which you’ll get the most out of is the best first step in determining the most effective pain management strategy. 

Stretching is best when: 

  • You want to increase your flexibility.
  • You’re warming up for a physical activity.
  • You’re cooling down from physical activity.
  • You want immediate relief from muscle tightness.
  • You want to relax.
  • You want relief from arthritis flare-ups.
  • You’ve been inactive for an extended period (e.g., sitting at a desk, watching a few episodes of your favorite show, or taking a long car ride).

On the other hand, strengthening your muscles is best for: 

  • Recovering from injuries and preventing them from getting worse.
  • Correcting muscle imbalances and movement compensations. 
  • Supporting and stabilizing your joints.
  • Increasing balance and preventing falls.
  • Long-term pain management.

Of course, many of my patients find that a personalized combination of the two can be a great way to get immediate relief while taking the steps necessary to address the underlying problem and see long-lasting results. 

Why the Stretching vs Strengthening Discussion Matters

As we age, it’s more important to consider the changes our bodies undergo. When your body is strong and flexible enough to handle what life throws at you, it makes a difference in your health and well-being. 

Whether you have chronic pain from a condition like arthritis or acute pain from an injury, the best way to maintain your independence is to address the root cause of the problem. Strengthening exercises are the most effective way to do this and an aspect of pain management routines that shouldn’t be overlooked for older adults. 

Key Takeaways

  • Stretching offers immediate relief from tight muscles and is a great way to improve flexibility and reduce stress.
  • Strengthening exercises create a strong foundation for long-term pain management. 
  • Strong muscles provide support and stability for joints, allowing them to move correctly without pain. 
  • Personalized treatment plans incorporating stretching and strengthening are an excellent way to increase flexibility and strength simultaneously. 
  • Quality of life is affected by how well you can navigate your surroundings, so taking proactive steps toward a pain-free future is the best way to maintain your independence and start feeling better. 

References

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. The Importance of Stretching.
  2. Bielecki JE, Tadi P. Therapeutic Exercise. [Updated 2023 Jul 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-.
  3. Sherrington C, Fairhall NJ, Wallbank GK, Tiedemann A, Michaleff ZA, Howard K, Clemson L, Hopewell S, Lamb SE. Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 31;1(1):CD012424. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012424.pub2. PMID: 30703272; PMCID: PMC6360922. 
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