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Does pandiculation “reset” muscle tone?

It might, but it’s probably no more profound than resetting your thirst with a glass of water

Paul Ingraham • 15m read
Photograph of a cat pandiculating.

Pandiculation is the reflexive stretching and contraction that animals often do when we rouse ourselves from rest or sleep. It routinely includes yawning, which can be thought of as “face pandiculation” — or perhaps pandiculation is “body yawning”? There’s a bunch of overlap pandiculation and chasmology, the study of yawning. For instance, they are both triggered by sexual arousal.12

While pandiculation often includes brief stretch, it is also clearly not “stretching” as we know it: it’s a more complex, ephemeral, and idiosyncratic mixture of contraction and stretching in varying proportions, including with no stretching at all, just pure clenching. Nor is it as optional as stretching exercises: like yawning, most of us cannot avoid doing some of this. Try not pandiculating for a week, I dare ya! (Actually, that would be an interesting experiment.)

What does pandiculation do? Is it physiologically important and “regulatory”? Maybe it helps our bodies maintain homeostasis. More specifically, maybe it “resets” or “calibrates” muscle tone. If so, can it be used to upgrade or replace conventional stretching? Or does it just justify it, rescuing stretching from the ignominious debunking it has been subjected to over the last twenty years? See Quite a Stretch: Stretching science has shown that this extremely popular form of exercise has almost no measurable benefits.

Stretching not required

Mushi shows off her slightly peculiar pandiculating, demonstrating that it doesn’t always involve stretching. According to her cat-mom, reader Carol R, Mushi “becomes very tall & quite rigid, her eyes roll back & her ears flatten.”

Pandiculation interpretation one: just cool physiology

There are two common takes on the possible significance of pandiculation: one that’s reasonable but trivial and vague, and another that’s more specific and profound but far less credible. Savvy readers will notice the “deepity” pattern there.3

Pandiculation is clearly a major animal behaviour — “highly conserved” in evolutionary jargon — and so it’s extremely plausible that it does something useful, a kind of instinctive “warm-up.” A great deal of biology is devoted to maintaining homeostasis (comfortable internal conditions, staying in the physiological Goldilocks zone). It would be surprising if pandiculation was not “regulatory” in some sense.

Then there’s a more specific common idea that pandiculation “calibrates” or “resets” muscle tone and a variety of reflexes, although this remains speculative as far as I can tell. But it’s plausible and intriguing at a high level, a fun idea, and probably worthy of research attention, albeit probably not a very high priority.

But the phenomenon does not inform our behaviour. Which brings us to the next interpretation of pandiculation…

Pandiculation interpretation two: powerful, practical, profound!

The attractive idea of pandiculation as a “reset” has often been exaggerated into more grandiose claims. In this view, pandiculation isn’t just interesting, it’s powerful, the tip of an iceberg of opportunity that can be leveraged by a savvy therapist.

At the least, many believe that pandiculation justifies stretching (as a warmup especially), that pandiculation sets the example and “more is better” — because we pandiculate, we “should” stretch as a deliberate exercise. But that’s just the start of putting pandiculation on a pedestal.

Many go further and to the belief that “voluntary pandiculation” can and should enhance or even replace stretching as a fitness habit — think “paleo stretching.” They believe that it’s a template for therapeutic techniques. Surely I am joking, you might think, but consider this pitch perfect example of a self-serving excitement about pandiculation (which ranks well in search results):

"Voluntary pandiculation proved to be a groundbreaking movement technique. It quickly reduced muscular tension, and since it relaxed muscles through active learning rather than passive manipulation (such as in stretching or massage), the effects were typically long-lasting."

Those are big, specific, and testable claims — which have not been tested.4 Or get a load of this pandiculation worship, from the desk of notorious medical flake, Dr. Christiane Northrup, another piece with high visibility in web searches:5

“Gentle somatic movement patterns that incorporate pandiculation can retrain your brain and muscles so that your muscles move more easily. Pandiculation works by sending biofeedback to your brain informing it of the level of contraction in your muscles.”

More big, specific testable claims. Web search results for, say, “pandiculation muscle tone” are choked with articles like this, breathlessly repeating the pandiculation “reset” deepity.

Or consider this immediate response from a reader that I got when I first blogged about this topic (which I did not really expect, because I thought the topic was too obscure):

“Pandiculation works and static stretching does not … it depends on how you do it and I have created my own way … I have about 30 years experience working with the body … my clients know it works and chronic pain goes away really fast. Scheduled Surgeries for knee replacements and labral repairs get cancelled. All good....”

Being as gracious as possible: maybe she’s onto something. But even if so, if “her own way” can actually replace knee replacements, that would be nothing short of a miracle, and rather unlikely. Not that it’s a realistic desire, but citations are desperately needed for all this, of course, not anecdotes.6 Is their any credible science about this? What is driving all this pandering to pandiculation?

Slow-motion pandiculation 1:30

Our love affair with the “reset” metaphor

Alternative medicine professionals want to be perceived as having wisdom about the body, and this is often derived from making something out of any example of the wisdom of the body. Unfortunately, it’s a short hop from “isn’t that neat?” to a sales pitch for applied body-wisdom, and so alternative medicine and quackery have always had a love affair with the “reset” metaphor — along with “reboot” and “release” and “retraining.”

This is often taken too far, into the land of empty promises and false hopes.

But we eat it up! To be fair to alt-med, they are just giving the people what they very clearly want: health hacks, relatively easy ways of generating significant benefits. Almost everyone loves the idea of a good reset!

Putting pandiculation on a pedestal is just another example of this process. The idea is catnip for massage therapists in particular: professional tightness fighters obviously are keen on anything that could possibly qualify as “one weird trick” to improve muscle tone.

And so there’s a substantial history of recruiting pandiculation to explain the power of stretching and many kinds of movement-based therapies to reset muscle tone. And all of this has happened without any science at all.

Health hacks are relatively easy ways of generating significant benefits & almost everyone loves the idea of a good reset! (Except for a few curmudgeonly skeptics who strongly suspect that most of them, if not all, are too good to be true. Hi, nice to meet you!)

Seriously, are there no citations for the power of pandiculation?

Since 2011, one citation about pandiculation has loomed large, appearing almost anywhere you can find any relevant references at all.

As I studied this topic, I kept hunting for the citation that we actually need, some credible experiment that demonstrates the validity of the reset metaphor, or that extra resetting is possible and desirable. I especially searched for slightly more specific and technical-sounding versions of the idea, like “pandiculation activates muscle spindles,” but citations were always missing entirely … or just pointed to another similar opinion … or to this one weird paper: Bertolucci.7

I should lay my cards out of on the table: I greatly dislike this paper. I think it’s a lot of overheated speculation that aggrandizes stretching in general, hypes the clinical significance of fascial stretching in particular, and helps Bertolucci “explain” the effectiveness of one of his manual therapy techniques. Although thick with advanced-sounded scientific language, it is also often quite simplistic and silly. For instance, did you know that animals engage in “a great deal of non-optimal movement” and have “bad postural habits”? Sheesh.

I explain my dislike of the article in more detail in this footnote.8

Pandiculation probably is “regulatory” in some sense, and the “reset” metaphor might even be apt and reasonable. But I don’t think Bertolucci’s paper actually gets us meaningfully closer to knowing, understanding, or leveraging the biology of pandiculation for therapeutic purposes. Or even just for validating stretching.

My pandiculation position

Even if pandiculation proves to be important, it does not follow that “more is better,” or that a stretching habit can extract an extra dose of whatever regulatory benefits we might derive from pandiculation. It’s conceivable that there’s some overlap, but it’s probably not very important, and it’s certainly never been demonstrated. Pandiculation doesn’t probably doesn’t “reset” anything any more exciting than a glass of water can “reset” thirst.

And pandiculation does not salvage what’s left of stretching’s dignity after debunking it’s more familiar touted benefits.

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:

What’s new in this article?

January — Publication.

Jan 28, 2023 — Added information about the link between pandiculation, sex, and — another fun new word — “chasmology.” Added a new emphasis that pandiculation isn’t just about stretching, and added a fun cat video, and some reader reports.

January — Minor additions and corrections that arose in the aftermath of publication.

Notes

  1. Ferrari This old experiment successfully induced yawning and pandiculation in rats by injecting them with a compound related to sexual arousal.
  2. Seuntjens W. The hidden sexuality of the yawn and the future of chasmology. Front Neurol Neurosci. 2010;28:55–62. PubMed #20357463 ❐ You don’t see sentences like this in many scientific abstracts: “Particular emphasis is placed upon the author’s favorite theory: the hidden sexuality of the human yawn.”
  3. A “deepity” is an idea with two possible interpretations, the more prosaic of which is true but trivial, while the most profound and interesting interpretation is false.
  4. The Somatic Movement Centre. “What is Pandiculation, and Why Doesn’t Stretching Work?” 2019. Accessed 2023-01-11.

    That document, although well-written, is chock-a-block with speculation and claims, but perfectly devoid of citations and science. Some of the claims are plausible and could be tested, but the authors are clearly seriously overconfident, and have been on a pure diet of their own Kool-Aid for a long time. For context, this is from a website that very prominently advertises: “Discover the secret to living pain-free.” No such thing exists, and it never will.

  5. Northrup, C. “Why Your Psoas Muscle Is The Most Vital Muscle in Your Body: Do You Suffer from Psoas Syndrome?” March 16, 2020. Accessed 2023-01-12.

    Many opinions, no citations. “Brain retraining” is a classic pseudo scientific trope, and the premise of the article — putting the psoas muscle on a pedestal — is one of the dumbest ideas in musculoskeletal medicine. See Psoas, So What? Massage therapy for the psoas major and iliacus (iliopsoas) muscles is not that big a deal.

    Consider the source: Dr. Northrup is a high-profile flake, on the record expressing belief in chakras, astrology, angels, mysticism, feng shui, and Tarot cards, and she has earned extensive, harsh criticism for the way she “famously pushes woo in the cause of women’s health.”

  6. The three most dangerous words in medicine: in my experience.

    Mark Crislip, MD

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself & you are the easiest person to fool.

    Richard Feynman

    It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

    Sherlock Holmes, in Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, 1892, p163

    Throughout history, people have believed really goofy things about health and medicine based on their “experience,” including even many things that were clearly harmful. Experience is not how the effectiveness of medical interventions is determined; if it was, we’d still be bleeding people. Of course it is possible for smart clinicians to figure out something that works, but it’s exotically rare. Experience misleads and confirms our biases with much greater power than it illuminates. Things are routinely not what they seem, and the mind is afflicted with many common reasoning errors and illusions.

  7. Bertolucci LF. Pandiculation: nature's way of maintaining the functional integrity of the myofascial system? J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2011 Jul;15(3):268–80. PubMed #21665102 ❐
  8. A single source is always a bit suspect, but this one more than most: Bertolucci is associated with the embarrassingly pseudoscientific “fascia” movement (the Italians have always been a big part of that). For research in that context, the modus operandi is to study the basic properties of fascia and then wildly extrapolate from that to aggrandize its significance to manual therapy. They have never done any translational or clinical research. They just go on endlessly about how “cool” fascia is and make very self-serving leaps of logic about clinical relevance. In the absence of original basic biology of fascia, they do what Bertolucci has done here, and just mine the literature for biological clues to fuel their speculation. I have written extensively about the many problems with the fascia research community here.

    Now, none of this means that he’s actually wrong about pandiculation, and ideally any claim should always be evaluated on its own merits. In practice, I’ve evaluated dozens of overheated hypotheses about the Power of Fascia over the years, and it’s getting rather tedious and, I confess, very difficult to take seriously. I am getting to the point where I see an Italian author and the word “fascia” and it’s hard not to assume it’s going to be yet more nonsense. I do still try to be objective, of course.

    But, consistent with my expectations, Bertolucci’s paper doesn’t seem to actually substantiate or illuminate. It’s all highly speculative, and a terrific demonstration of obscurant, bloviating bafflegab. He talks in fancy circles around the hypothesis, and the paper is peppered with hilariously overconfident statements that expose his very prominent biases, like “the importance of stretching to the maintenance of musculoskeletal health is well-known” (plus the thing about animals having poor posture).

    So, yes, I dislike the paper. But more important than my feelings is that I simply don’t think it successfully argue anything important about pandiculation. It moderately and indirectly substantiates the plausibility of the hypothesis. To actually test the hypothesis would require something else entirely.

Permalinks

https://www.painscience.com/articles/pandiculation.php

PainScience.com/pandiculation
PainScience.com/pandiculation_as_therapy
PainScience.com/therapeutic_pandiculation
PainScience.com/the_power_of_pandiculation

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