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Is pandiculation powerful?

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Pandiculation is the reflexive stretching that many animals do when we rouse ourselves from rest or sleep. It routinely includes yawning, which can be thought of as “face pandiculation.” Or is pandiculation “body yawning”?

While pandiculation includes brief stretching, and can be considered a type of stretching, it is clearly not the stretching of our familiar fitness rituals: it’s a more complex and ephemeral mixture of contraction and stretching.

Maybe the ubiquity of pandiculation validates stretching? Maybe it shows that stretching is physiologically important, even if it doesn’t deliver the specific fitness and athletic benefits most people have traditionally shot for. This hope rests on the general idea that pandiculation is “regulatory,” that it helps our bodies maintain homeostasis — and more specifically that it “resets” or “calibrates” muscle tone.

This is plausible and interesting in itself, and in a way it would be surprising if a major animal behaviour was not regulatory in some way. Unfortunately, we have no evidence that confirms or illuminates this.

But even a rigorously validated “reset” phenomenon would not be much of a “eureka!” It would not necessarily follow that it has practical implications; that it would validate, enhance, or replace stretching; or that it would inform or inspire manual or movement therapies. All of that is mostly just self-serving speculation for alt-med professionals, who have always had a love affair with metaphors like “reset” and “release” … along with almost everyone else, except a few curmudgeonly skeptics who think most health hacks are too good to be true. (Hi! 🙋🏻‍♂️)

Pandiculation gets exploited to explain and justify highly speculative therapeutic techniques, and to boost reputations for being savvy about the wisdom of the body. But without clarification of the nature of the phenomenon — which we are unlikely to get — then it is definitely just a curiousity, no more (or less) interesting than yawning, and no more of a “reset” than drinking water resets thirst.

Want more on this topic? It’s your lucky day. This post started out as a short new section of my massive article about stretching science, as an answer to the common objection/question, “Doesn’t pandiculation mean that stretching must be important/good?”

But that quickly spiralled out of control. When I hit a thousand words I decide to make a whole new article out of it … and then it had another growth spurt. The “final” result is basically the same as this post, but with quite a bit more detail — a couple thousand words. Hope you find it interesting and entertaining! I don’t think it will cause any face pandiculation.