Why is it that I feel Nauseous or Lightheaded when I am Stretching?

When I work with students in workshops both in Australia and all over the world they come up with all kinds of questions. These questions often surprise the teachers who are watching as sometimes they seem unrelated to physical therapy, when in actual fact they are. While I was at one of our recent workshops one of the students asked,

 “Why is it that I feel nauseous or lightheaded when I am stretching? Sometimes I actually feel like I am going to throw up but then other times it is ok. Is there anything I can do because it really puts me off stretching!
There are several reasons why you can get nauseous while stretching (and if anyone else has other suggestions please feel free to comment!) Each of them has a different mechanism so I will explain why it happens and how to address it in detail. The three main culprits that I usually see are:

A) Positioning of the head
B) Emotional tension
C) Stretching of the nervous system

A) Positioning of the head:

Often when you are doing stretches in class you may look up to watch the teacher or turn you head to talk to a friend. We have lots of little muscles right up at the back of the neck that feed information to our brain about where our body is in space. If the little receptors in the these muscles get over stimulated by being squashed or overworked they can send unhelpful messages to the brain which results in us feeling dizzy or nauseous.  To avoid this, note what position your head is in when going into any stretches. Try and focus on keeping the back of the neck lengthened and your eyes looking straight ahead. You may also find it helpful to do the sub occipital neck releases first to relax these muscles before stretching.  (http://www.frontsplitsfast.com/videos-stream-sub-occipital-release)

B) Emotional tension:

Sometimes the tension that we feel in our muscles is simply from working that muscle hard that day or the day before. And sometimes it is not. If you find that you get tight in one place constantly, or that you repeatedly get tight in the same place even after lots of stretches it may be more about your emotions than your muscles. I notice this in lots of different situations from something as seemingly innocent as starting start high school to something as traumatic as your parents going through a divorce. Most of us will feel that when we get stressed we tend to hold our shoulders and neck much tighter than normal (or we know someone who does). This can happen all over your body not just in the head and shoulders and is a very natural coping mechanism.

If you are stretching (especially in your upper back or hamstrings) and you start feeling emotional or nauseous, just back off a little and focus on your breathing. It is important to learn to let go of this tension, and once you do, you will often feel a whole lot better! It is best to gently move in and out of the stretch in slightly different directions (as we do with the hip flexor stretches in the Front Splits Fast Flexibility Program) than to hold a deep stretch.  You can also try massaging the muscle instead to help bring in some blood flow and then slowly work up to stretching it in your routine.

C) Stretching of the Nervous System:

The nervous system is a very complicated system. It carries messages from your brain to your muscles to tell them what to do, and then also carries messages from your muscles, skin and joints back to your brain to let it know their position and the effect of the movement. These nerves are actually quite thick in some points and can get squashed by tight muscles that lie across them. They are also very sensitive to stretch. If the nerves are not able to slide (as they are designed to do) when you go into a stretch, some odd messages can get sent to your brain which can make you feel quite nauseous. This often happens in the upper back as the ‘Sympathetic Trunk’ (nerves that control your heart rate, breathing and even organs such as your liver, kidneys and stomach) lies very close to your spine and is very affected by the movement (or lack thereof) of this area.

This may sound silly, but when you are stretching, make sure that you are feeling the stretch where you should be feeling the stretch. If you are going into a hamstring stretch, make sure that you are actually feeling it in your hamstrings! If you are feeling it in your calves or your back, chances are that you are stretching the nerves and you will not get the effect that you are after. Stretching the nerves may also result in what we call ‘Latent Pain’(pain that occurs after the stretch, not during it) so is best avoided. 

Other causes:

There are numerous other causes that may make you nauseous when stretching including dehydration, positions with your head forward, twisting positions or other more serious conditions such as a kidney infection! If you ever feel nauseous when you are stretching, try to think of all the ideas suggested here and see what makes a difference to you. Try increasing your water intake and avoid complex stretches where you may be holding your breath. If the dizziness or nausea persists, it may be best to talk to your local doctor to make sure that everything is fine.

7 Responses to “Why is it that I feel Nauseous or Lightheaded when I am Stretching?”

  1. Jane Says:

    Dear Lisa,
    I always seem to get terrible headaches when doing stretches for my back. Then, they dissipate after about 10 minutes or so when I finish stretching. No matter what kind of back stretch I do, this seems to happen. However, any other kind of stretching does not bother me at all. Do you have any ideas as to why this occurs?
    Thanks so much,
    Jane

    Hi Jane,

    This happens to more people that you realise! The most likely answer is that you have a significant amount of neural tension in your spine, and that when you try to do spinal stretches there is pulling on the spinal cord and other delicate structures that attach up to the base of your neck. This can cause quite a lot of headaches and can be very frustrating! I would suggest focusing on very gentle spinal mobility exercises rather than stretches to help free up these connections (Such as the spinal mobility section in the FSF program). Also try doing the “Sub-Occipital Releases” befor eyou do your spinal stretches and see if this helps!

    I hope that this helps!,

    Kindest Regards,

    Lisa

  2. Kim Says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks so much for your article. I have always been curious as to why I feel extremely nauseous during and after stretching, especially when I’m under an intense amount of stress.
    I do have one question though, is there any way to tell the cause or at least an indication of which problem is causing the nausea? For example nervous tenstion vs muscular imbalance? I always just thought if you were supposed to feel a certain muscle in an isolated position and instead felt something else, it just meant that one muscle was taking over because it is tighter and more prone to holding the tension during stretching.
    What are your thoughts on this?
    Thanks so much!
    Kim

  3. Jenny Says:

    Wow. I have pretty severe kyphosis in my upper back, and I read that a good way to treat this is by stretching the arms back and training the upper back muscles. I decided to try it, and almost immediately afterward I had to run to the bathroom and vomit. It was the strangest thing.

  4. Cindi Braaf Says:

    Hi Lisa

    Thank you for your knowledge and helpfulness. I have difficulty stretching my hamstrings. It is fairly flexible so when I go into front splits I do not feel a stretch in my front leg but only at the upper hip part of the back leg. My hips are generally tight therefor I struggle to get completely down in the splits because of my back leg. So all this leads up with what you said in the part of the article marked “c”.

    I try numerous hamstring stretches but I always feel the stretch behind the knee or the upper side of my calf. My genetal thought was that I was perhaps just tight in that area.

    My question boils down to what can I do to stretch my hammy. I have tried “touching toes” exercise (sitting and standing), laying on my back pulling my leg towards me.(I feel the stretch even more in the upper calf when pulling the leg towards to opposite shoulder. Ive tried the stretch turned in and turnout but nevertheless I do not feel it in the hamstring.)

    I want to improve to flexibility in my hamstrings while I wait for my splits back leg to improve before over splitting but I have no idea what to do to feel the stretch on the proper place

    Please help !

    Thank you for your time
    Cindi

  5. Anita Says:

    Hi, I am a physio student, and a longtime dancer, and reading this article I just have one question, do we not want to stretch the nervous system along with the muscles too? If we have huge flexibility in our muscles, but our movements when dancing are limited by tension in the nerves, is that therefore not counter productive?

  6. Annie Says:

    Hi There!

    I have started practicing yoga again after the birth of two children in quick succession, and I became curious about the nausea and lightheadedness that I have always experienced when stretching. I can’t give any definite cause, but I can say that gently working the stretch until the nausea passes ALWAYS helps (sometimes I have to leave the stretch and work some knots with a racquet ball, then come back after an hour or so), and that it seems to have a great deal to do with the amount of tension I carry in my upper back.

    I first discovered this discomfort in myself in high school and found that being able to relax into the stretch until the nausea passes (and it usually passes very suddenly once a full stretch is achieved) is the best way to go. Obviously, pushing too hard will make it worse, and the key is breathing and knowing when to back off.

    I also believe that completing the stretch (sometimes over a period of days) seems to assist with blood flow, and nerve communication, because my normal aches and pains always recede after I finally get there.

  7. Lorna Says:

    Dear Lisa,

    You wrote that nerves are sensitive to stretch and that when nerves are not able to slide when you come into a stretch they can send odd messages back to the brains. When this happens is there existence of nerve stretch? And how do you know the difference between a muscle stretch and a nerve stretch?
    Thanks in advanced for your answer!
    Warm regards,
    Lorna

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