Tendons and ligaments are the connective tissue that attach muscle to bone. They are made of cartilage and have a limited ability to stretch. When over-stretched, these tissues tear. Most often tears are tiny (so-called micro-tears) and don’t result in any noticeable pain or constriction of movement. Unfortunately, if not permitted sufficient time to heal, micro-tears can result in the formation of calcium deposits in the connective tissue. These deposits are inflexible and can cause inflammation as the soft tissue around the deposits rubs against the hard calcium. Over time this can result in significant pain and loss of flexibility.
Careful stretching when warm is one method of maintaining suppleness while avoiding over-stressing connective tissue. So-called ballistic stretches which use the body’s momentum to complete the movement (for example, the classic “touching the fingers to the opposite toes”) are most likely to result in micro-tears of cartilage and ligament, especially when done prior to warming up through gentle exercise.
Over-stressing the ligaments can also cause catastrophic tearing, as occurs when a skier accidentally plants the front of a ski and the leg is carried forward by momentum. This can tear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and complete recovery from such an injury is unlikely. Similarly, severing the Achilles tendon connecting the heel to the lower calf muscle is also an injury from which complete recovery is rare. This is because, once torn, the reconnected tissue contains significant areas of non-elastic tissue and material (for example, calcium deposits) and so the effect is like cutting a spring in half and then re-joining it with concrete in the middle.
Although our tendons and ligaments naturally lose elasticity with age, it is possible to compensate to some degree by means of dietary supplements. Although the precise mechanism is not properly understood, evidence suggests that glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin sulphate can over time permit connective tissue to retain more of its elasticity than would normally be the case. Empirical data suggests that about half the population is responsive to glucosamine while the other half is responsive to chondroitin. The choice, therefore, is to take supplements containing both compounds, or to experiment in order to determine which works best for any given individual. Approximately three months of dietary supplementation are required before noticeable benefits accrue, and therefore patience is required when making such a test. The results, however, can be significant and many people from their thirties onwards rely on such dietary supplements as part of their overall health maintenance regime.