Massage therapists tend to bend over clients, using a lot of forward movements of the arms. Active Isolated Stretching resets the body, reminding us of what it feels like to be upright with good erect posture.
It is one thing to understand the mechanism of an injury in theory, and it is quite another to feel the pain and limitation of an injury through a personal experience.
As a clinical massage therapist for 32 years, my continuing education has always been focused on learning methods to help people heal from injuries. But as I think back on the experiences that have offered me the most profound learning, I have to tell you that I have always learned the most about a particular injury by having that injury myself.
In these situations, I use my body as a personal laboratory to discover the requirements for healing.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not suggesting that you need to injure yourself to learn about treating injuries. Hopefully, just reading this article will suffice.
Active Isolated Stretching for Shoulder Sprain
When I crashed on my bike and landed on my left shoulder, I tore the acromioclavicular ligament that holds the acromion process and the clavicle together.
Luckily for me, it was only a grade-one sprain, which doesn’t require surgery. I can’t imagine what a grade-two sprain must feel like, because the pain was bad enough that I had to get a scissors and cut off the shirt I was wearing because I couldn’t move my arm enough to get my shirt over my head. This was not one of my happier days!
It would have been an acceptable protocol to let my arm rest in a sling until the pain subsided, and I could get in to see a physical therapist. But since the body starts to lay down scar tissue within 24-hours of an injury, I wasn’t going to allow myself to become immobile. I began taking my arm out of that sling for movement sessions the day after my fall.
If you have ever observed an animal in the wild after it has been injured or attacked, you have seen that animals rehabilitate by doing slow, gentle movement until they can function again. So I used this same principle for my injury: I started doing slow, easy movements of my shoulder.
I did tiny movements with my arm hanging at my side, medial rotation and then lateral rotation, only going to the edge of the pain, and then moving away from it, in and out, over and over.
I used the principles of AIS as my guide, moving only to the end of my active range of motion (ROM) on each of the stretches and then trying to go a little past that place as pain allowed. With each repetition of a stretch, the pain lessened and movement increased.
Because it took me almost two weeks to get in to see a physical therapist, the techniques of Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), a method of stretching developed by Aaron Mattes, LMT, a kinesiotherapist from Sarasota, Florida., allowed me to start doing some rehabilitation of my shoulder myself, using movement and stretching to prevent scar tissue from adhering as it formed.
As my shoulder healed, I did all of the stretches shown in this article to restore my range of motion.
Active Isolated Stretching: Move In & Out
As massage therapists, we tend to bend over our clients as we work, using a lot of forward movements of the arms. AIS shoulder stretches serve to reset the body, reminding you, proprioceptively speaking, of what it feels like to be upright with good erect posture.
Let’s review the steps in the AIS method before we delve into the shoulder stretches. AIS is a unique approach to stretching because, unlike traditional stretching, one only holds each stretch for two seconds. In this way, you never trigger the stretch reflex, and most importantly, stretching doesn’t hurt.
Another feature is that you move in and out of the stretch—that’s the active part—meaning there is a starting point and an ending point (end range of motion) where you move two-to-three degrees past your active end-range to apply the stretch. This active motion helps to detoxify the body, because as you move the body part being stretched you are moving blood and lymph, which increases oxygen and nutrition.
The other feature of AIS that assists this detoxifying effect is breathing. As you do each stretch, you exhale during the stretching phase, and you inhale as you move back to the starting position between each stretch. Each stretch is typically repeated 10 times during a stretching session.
Even if you have pain or very little range of motion in your shoulder, you can still do these stretches. Because you repeat the stretches, there is no need to push yourself to achieve your deepest stretch on the first one. Especially if you have a sore, stiff shoulder, you can actively move to a place where you feel a little pulling sensation and then apply a gentle assist to increase ROM, counting 1,2,3, as you exhale, then releasing the stretch and moving back to the starting position.
The 5-Step Active Isolated Stretching Process
Below is a summary of the five steps involved in Active Isolated Stretching that I have just described:
1. Move the body part being stretched to the starting position for the stretch.
2. Gently stretch the body part two-to-three degrees past the endpoint (endpoint) and hold the stretch for two seconds (count 1, 2, 3).
3. Inhale during the movement phase of the stretch and exhale during the stretch.
4. Move the body part being stretched back to the starting position between stretches.
5. Repeat each stretch 10 times.
Stretches for You to Try
Incorporate Active Isolated Stretching into Your Day
With each repetition of a stretch, you will feel your active end ROM increase. To incorporate some AIS stretching into your day, I would recommend warming up before seeing clients with a few of the stretches pictured in this article. You can easily do one or two stretches between clients, and it also feels lovely to decompress before bed with stretching.
If you find yourself reading this article and thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just stretching,” here is what I must say to you: You will probably be familiar with most of these stretches, but just try doing them the way I describe: with a short duration, moving in and out of the stretch, and 10 repetitions. You have to feel it to understand the benefit, just like a massage.
AIS will enhance the health of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints and decrease your vulnerability to injury. I hope you will find it easy to make these stretches part of your daily routine.
About the Author:
Lois Orth-Zitoli, LMT, is a public speaker, teacher, massage therapist and health coach. Lois owns Full Circle Health in Chicago, Illinois, and teaches workshops in the Benjamin method of orthopedic massage and injury assessment, as well as stretching workshops.