Stretch Reflex

Foe or Friend

The stretch reflex is a neurological switch or a button which can hinder or help.

One way it can help

Let's say you put your hand near a hot stove.

stretch reflex works here

The reflex lets you pull away quickly to save you from burning yourself.

One way it can help and hurt

Another way is when all of a sudden.  You may have been doing not much of anything.

For example, you were reaching or lifting something.

Out of nowhere, you get a jolt of pain or a muscle spasm.

Spine Jolt Stretch Reflex Can Turn On

Not much fun.  Yet the switch may have saved you from further damage or tearing.

Afterwards, you may be lying on the ground.  The breath knocked out of you.

Feeling incapacitated.  Any little movement may cause you to freeze up or wince with more pain.

And you may start wondering how do I get to the phone and call for HELP.

Why or where does this happen?

You see, in our normal everyday activities and movements.

Once we got it, we go on autopilot.

We generally are using programmed or learned movements from this level of the brain.

Programmed or learned movements

This is where things like, when you normally reach your arm out to the side.  You're good to go because there is a program or set limit in the lower brain.

That's a good thing so your arm doesn't go flying off of you every time you reach or point at something.

When you need to flinch quickly (or get a spasm), your moving from the spinal cord level of the brain.

Spinal cord level of brain

This happens at super speed.  This is much faster than the lower part of the brain.

That way the message only has to go from your hand, finger or arm to the spinal cord and back.

Spinal cord to muscle arm

You're not left thinking.  Should I move my burning flesh away?  You do it instantly to save yourself from a burn.

And we all know, sometimes burns happen.  Ouch!

Mostly though we get a lot of close calls so you can thank your spinal cord and stretch reflex for saving you.

How We Deal with One of the Most Common Bad Stretch Reflexes

The most common type of muscle spasm or bad stretch reflex experience can happen in the middle of the night.  When you get rudely awakened by a calf cramp.

Calf cramp or pain

Or you were running or even pointing your foot.  And ouch goes a spasm.

Generally we tend to stand on it.  Or move our foot/ankle in a way to stretch it out.

That can sort of work.

What I mean by that is this.

You can pull the muscle in the opposite direction to create a stretch since the calf is cramping.

But… this does not change the program at the level of the brain where it can change.

(More on that in a minute.)

Stretch Reflex - 1936

In 1936, Mabel Todd was working with athletes. They were in contracted or high tension level states.

So naturally she attempted to stretch things out.

Here’s what happened:  the athletes got tighter.  Their motion was restricted.

Thus, the negative side of the stretch reflex came into being.

See, stretching it out like this...

is “a waste of time” by today's standards.

But, that’s what most of us have learned, been told to do or it seemed to be the appropriate short term measure.

Heck, in offices all across America.  People are being subjected to it.

If it’s short, stretch it out.

Even though some of us know that this violates the stretch reflex principle.

Why This Continues to Be Practiced?

If we look at the human being from the outside.  Then it makes sense to stretch or find a way to push the muscles longer.

However, if we go at this from the inside.  The way we feel and how certain feedback loops actually work.  We have a pretty good chance to reverse it by regaining cortical control.

(More on this in a minute...)

So What is Really Going On?

In spite of what you believe about not having enough water in your system.  Which could be true?

Or that you wasted or used up or needed electrolytes which is why you got into a cramp.

High tension gets to the point.  Where the signal from spinal cord, really gets your attention by taking you out.

It may not matter how much pickle juice (one of the many attempts to solve the riddle) you drank.

You've tripped the alarm switch on to save and maybe hurt you too.  Bummer, I know.

See, we all can learn to live with varying degrees of tension.  Or ongoing muscular contraction levels and stiffness.  In fact, we can get used to it.

We all figure out a way to move the best we can.

Until the negative switch really gets our attention.

An Inside View

While the negative stretch reflex experience may not be pleasant.  It’s one you can use to your Somatic advantage.

It's personally why I love spasms.

Once you understand how the brain works.  You can learn and feel how to reverse a negative stretch reflex into a positive reset.

Positive Stretch Reflex Reset

Somatics is about how you feel, what you feel, and how you’d personally describe your feelings.  Such as going into a cramp or muscle spasm.

Somatic Education is how to use your internal feelings.  Along with various feedback loops to re-establish cortical control.

This happens at a higher brain level.

Higher Brain Level

You and I are feeling, sensing, moving creatures.

So if we go inside using our feelings in a precise manner.  You can self-regulate tension to comfortable levels. 

That way you can move from the red reset to a green one.

Cortical reset vs Spina cord reset

The brain resets, the muscles get restored so you can use them comfortably again.

This cortical response is what all animals do.

So we’ve simply made it a more conscious affair.

Thus ,we go to the higher learning center of the brain. Thus, it learns how to make the change instead of being forced or pulled.

This is the complete reverse to what stretching has to offer.

The Tricky Stuff

This can take a little adjustment to get used to.

The brain may have forgotten how to do this.  Even though this neurological mechanism is internally built in.

Rather than stretching.  You actually create positive tension while doing a movement.

You pay more attention to the quality rather than the range of motion.

As you lower the tension level...

What usually happens is this.

That diagnostic tool lets you regain cortical control.

Since the brain is a delicate instrument, here’s words of advice.

Brain Under Construction

Caution - Danger

It doesn’t take much to re-trigger a spasm.


Tension levels are already high.  So when you amp it up, the stretch reflex can swiftly (and even painfully) turn on.

So there is an art to learn how to move well and re-establish cortical control. 

Plus, if the brain hasn’t gone there in some time.  You are updating movement software.  It may be waaaay behind a much needed movement update.

No worries.  With a little practice, the brain and body gets up to speed in handling this.

How to Get Good at This

Matter of fact, in my new book, The 1 Thing to Do.  I teach you how you can access the brain to get the body back to comfort.

Or if you're tired of that most common muscle spasm.  Or even a back spasm.  This brain-body stuff will do the trick.

So, it's really up to you to turn that foe into a friend.

Ed Barrera is a Hanna Somatic Educator®, H.S.E., Holistic Health Advisor, H.H.A., Muscle Balance & Function Development Trainer, M.B.F.

Ed 's 1st book Move Like an Animal:  Feel Comfortable, Move Well for Life in 3 Simple Steps, is an Amazon Bestseller in Pain Management & Aging.  

Ed lived with chronic pain and fibromyalgia in his 20's & 30's, so he appreciates the long road out and can help you shortcut your way back to feeling comfortable for life.

Ed has over 18 years of experience, helping people find natural pain relief that targets the brain’s motor cortex, resets the nervous system, and provides deeper states of relaxation which leads to a healthy, fully-functional body.

Essentially it's motor control exercises (MCE), mindful-based stress reduction (MBSR)and progressive relaxation all rolled into one which now the American College of Physicians (ACP) are saying is "the first thing to do relieve pain".

Muscle lengthening, recovery, relaxation and control are restored by this "alternative to exercise” approach; plus it's natural pain relief that actually works!