Consider for a moment exactly how you yawn and stretch first thing in the morning. Can you picture yourself stretching your fingers backwards and bringing your arms out away from your body? It’s an instinctual movement – and an example of neural stretching.
Flexibility is important to help us stay subtle, fit and pain free. But what exactly do we mean by neural flexibility?
Flexibility refers to the range of motion in the joints, the potential length that muscles and soft tissue can stretch to when required, and also the flexibility of the nerves – our neural flexibility.
Neural flexibility is more accurately described as ‘neural dynamics’.If such flexibility is limited, physiotherapists and scientists refer to it as ‘adverse neural dynamics’. The nerves that supply each limb have a long pathway that starts at the spine and ends at the fingers or toes. These nerves require freedom to move slightly as you move your limbs.
Any restriction to this movement of the nerves due to old scars, muscle tension or friction can tend to restrict your flexibility overall. This is a common underlying cause of pain problems such as tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome or sciatica. Nerves are highly sensitive things!
If you would like to read more about the science of neural dynamics, it is covered in detail in David Butler’s book,The sensitive nervous system(2000). This book may be particularly interesting to those with a scientific or medical background. Another reference is Butler and Moseley’s book Explain pain (2003), which is written more for a non-scientific audience.
Self-assessment for neural flexibility
Note: with these self-assessments and the exercises covered later, always follow the instructions carefully, and work well within your comfort limits.
With these tests and the neural stretches below, the end range will be noted by a tingling feeling that indicates the nerves are stretching as far as they are comfortable. Aim for this to remain a pleasant stretching sensation rather than a painful one.
- For the arm
Stand facing a wall and place your left palm flat against it, with the fingers pointing horizontally to the left. Keep your hand there as you slowly twist away from the wall towards the right. Note: do this action slowly and stop when you first feel resistance. How far can you twist around? A moderate range of movement should allow you to eventually have your chest facing at right angles to the wall (as shown in picture).
If you can go further this is a very good range of movement. More than 30 degrees further is excellent.
Repeat this test for the left side. Is one side tighter than the other? If either is tight, some stretching may be in order.
- For the legs
Sit on a chair in a slumped position with your hands behind your back and your chin towards your chest. From this position, bring your toes up fully and then try to straighten one leg to a horizontal position (as shown in picture). Repeat this for the opposite side. How straight can you get your knee? It should be close to fully straight.
Improving your neural flexibility
Exercise such as yoga and tai chi can assist in improving neural flexibility. Specific stretches can assist too. The self-assessments outlined above can also be used as stretches to improve neural flexibility. Hold the end range for around five seconds and repeat the exercises around five times each side. Always work within your limits.
Along with those two stretches, the stretches below can assist you to improve your neural flexibility. Use them to break up your day at home and work. When done patiently and consistently they can help you feel freer in your movement, and help reduce aches and pains.
- Arm nerve stretch
This exercise can help loosen the nerves in your arms, and therefore may help prevent soreness in the neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Stand up straight with your arms in a “why” position, and your palms facing up towards the sky. Slowly stretch the palms out as though pushing two invisible walls away from you. Finish with the palms out and the fingers stretching down towards the ground. Hold this for three seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat this 5 times. The stretch should be felt along the length of the arm, particularly in the forearms, palms and fingers.
- Sitting slump stretch
This exercise can help stretch the Sciatic nerve. Sit in a stable chair, and with your knees bent, reach for your toes. Have your legs as straight as you can while still easily being able to reach your toes. Bend your forehead towards your knees, as far as is comfortable. Once you feel a comfortable stretch, rest in this position for 20 seconds. Repeat this twice. This stretch can be felt anywhere from the calves, right up to the back of the head. It is commonly felt through the hamstrings and lower back.
Practice these stretches and enjoy the benefits of developing more free and flexible nerves!
Have a healthy and productive day,