Why does it feel so good to stretch?
We are sure you have read many articles, some written by us, about the good the bad and the ugly about stretching. Regardless of how you slice the cake, we think we can all agree that stretching “feels” good. The question of course is “Why?”
Like it or not, it all boils down to neurology. Our good old friends, the Ia afferents are at least partially responsible, along with the tactile receptors, like Pacinian corpuscles, Merkel’s discs, Golgi tendon organs, probably all the joint mechanoreceptors and well as a few free nerve endings. We have some reviews we have written of these found here, and here and here.
What do all of these have in common? Besides being peripheral receptors. They all pass through the thalamus at some point (all sensation EXCEPT smell, pass through the thalamus) and the information all ends up somewhere in the cortex (parietal lobe to tell you where you are stretching, frontal lobe to help you to move things, insular lobe to tell you if it feels good, maybe the temporal lobe so you remember it, and hear all those great pops and noises and possibly the occipital lobe, so you can see what you are stretching.
The basic (VERY basic) pathways are:Peripheral receptor-peripheral nerve-spinal cord-brainstem-thalamus-cortex; we will call this the “conscious” pathway: and peripheral receptor-peripheral nerve-spinal cord-brainstem-cerebellum- cortex; we will call this the “unconscious” pathway.
Of course, the two BASIC pathways cross paths and communicate with one another, so not only can you “feel” the stretch with the conscious pathway but also know “how much” you are stretching through the unconscious pathway. The emotional component is related through the insular lobe (with relays from the conscious and unconscious pathways along with collaterals from the temporal lobe to compare it with past stretching experiences) to the cingulate gyrus and limbic cortex, where stretching is “truly appreciated”.
As we can see, there is an interplay between the different pathways and having “all systems go” for us to truly appreciate stretching from all perspectives; dysfunction in one system (due to a problem, compensation, injury, etc) can ruin the “stretching experience”.
Hopefully we have stretched your appreciation (and knowledge base) to understand more about the kinesthetic aspect of stretching. We are not telling you to stretch, or not to stretch, merely offering a reason as to why we seem to like it.
The Gait Guys