Taking advantage of the stretch reflex and reciprocal inhibition; or the “reverse stretch”
Reciprocal inhibition is a topic we have spoken about before on the blog (see here). The diagram above sums it up nicely. Note the direct connection from the spindle to the alpha motor neuron, which is via a Ia afferent fiber. When the spindle is stretched, and the pathway is intact, the uscle will contract. What kind of stimulus affects the spindle? A simple “stretch” is all it takes. Remember spindles respond to changes in length. So what happens when you do a nice, slow stretch? You activate the spindle, which activates the alpha motor neuron. If you stretch long enough, you may fatigue the reflex. So why do we give folks long, slow stretches to perform? Certainly not to “relax” the muscle!
How can we “use” this reflex? How about to activate a weak or lengthened muscle? Good call.
Did you notice the other neuron in the picture? There is an axon collateral coming off the Ia afferent that goes to an inhibitory interneuron, which, in turn, inhibits the antagonist of what you just stretched or activated. So if you acitvate one muscle, you inhibit its antagonist, provided there are not too many other things acting on that inhibitory interneuron that may be inhibiting its activity. Yes, you can inhibit something that inhibits, which means you would essentially be exciting it. This is probably one of the many mechanisms that explain spasticity/hypertonicity
How can we use this? How about to inhibit a hypertonic muscle?
Lets take a common example: You have hypertonic hip flexors. You are reciprocally inhibiting your glute max. You stretch the hypertonic hip flexors, they become more hypertonic (but it feels so good, doesn’t it?) and subsequently inhibit the glute max more. Hmm. Not the clinical result you were hoping for?
How about this: you apply slow stretch to the glutes (ie “reverse stretch”) and apply pressure to the perimeter, both of which activate the spindle and make the glutes contract more. This causes the reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors. Cool, eh? Now lightly contract the glutes while you are applying a slow stretch to them; even MORE slow stretch; even MORE activation. Double cool, eh?
Try this on yourself. Now go try it on your clients and patients. Teach others. Spread the word.