Tricks of the Trade: How We Make Muscles Relax

There are several tools that can be used so loosen tight muscles without causing any pain, and in many cases, banishing any feeling of pain in the muscle that might have been felt before treatment. There is Hold/Relax Stretching, Reciprocal Inhibition, Positional Release Therapy, and Eccentric Contraction, to name a few.

Hold/Relax Stretching is an osteopathic technique in which the practitioner passively stretches a muscle until a small amount of resistance is felt, at which point the patient is asked to contract with equal effort against the resistance provided by the practitioner. This results in an “isometric contraction” in which no movement occurs. This sequence is repeated several times (where each point of resistance is felt) until there is no more stretch to be had, resulting in the muscle reaching its normal length. When this type of stretching is used to remove skeletal deviations when tight muscles pull bones out of alignment, it’s called Muscle Energy Technique.

Next we have Reciprocal Inhibition, which takes advantage of the way the body is “wired.” Most muscles have opposing muscles, such as biceps/triceps or hamstrings/quadriceps. If one wanted to put an ice cream cone to his/her mouth, they would be contracting their biceps. Your body is “hard-wired” so that the opposing muscle (triceps) will automatically relax, allowing the biceps its action. So, say a person was lying on their back, knees up and feet together. We want to make the inside muscle (adductor) relax, but if we try a Hold/Relax stretch, the adductor hurts as we ask it to contract. No problem: we have them press against our resistance on the outside of their knee with their opposing muscle, hold for several seconds, and the adductor will lower into a stretch, pain free!

Positional Release Therapy (PRT) is a technique consisting of passively placing clients’ limbs in various positions, each of which constitutes complete slack (and is painless) for a tight muscle being treated. Each position is held for 90 seconds, which is sufficient time for the nervous system to decide that, since there is no pain at that site, it no longer needs to send a guarding signal. Passive replacing of the limb renders the muscle’s tender point pain free. This is a very relaxing protocol for the whole body (mentally as well as physically), and is particularly effective for neck and low back areas, IT Bands, etc.

Eccentric Contraction is the perfect way to not only get a muscle to “let go,” but also make it’s movement very clean and not restricted in any way. (For the bicep muscles, this is the action of slowly lowering one’s self from a “chin-up”.) Let’s say one has a tight left piriformis, or lateral rotator of the hip. The patient would be lying prone with the left knee bent at a 90 degree angle so the calf is perpendicular to the thigh. Pulling the calf outward (to the left) is restricted. I would take the calf at the ankle all the way over to the patient’s right, then have them “resist me, but let me win” as I pulled the bent leg over to the left. We would repeat this action several times, each time getting farther, and producing freer movement. I suspect this exercise somehow “scrubs” muscle fibers clean of adhesions, which allows the muscle to stretch to its full length, with noticeably more freedom of movement.

By communicating with the nervous system, and using several forms of muscle contraction such as eccentric (“putting on the brakes” as the muscle is stretched), isometric (contraction, but no movement occurs), reciprocal inhibition (contracting the opposing muscle), as well as just placing a muscle in a position of complete slack (Positional Release Therapy), we can easily obtain relaxation for muscles, as well as full range of motion – all without solutions which are often time-consuming … and painful!

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