I tend to post a lot about studies that find no benefits from traditional static stretching. Does that mean stretching has no benefits? No — it just means that the benefits are hard to quantify. So to be fair and balanced, I figured I should mention this recent study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, which suggests that stretching may be helpful for lower back pain (press releases here and here).
The study was actually designed to test whether yoga helps back pain. They compared a 12-week yoga program to 12 weeks of stretching (chosen to have a similar level of physical exertion), or 12 weeks reading a self-care book. Both yoga and stretching were better than reading the book at improving pain and function; there were no differences between yoga and stretching.
Now, I can’t help pointing out that the study isn’t immune to placebo effects. The assessments of pain and function were done with telephone interviews, and relied on subjective reports from the patients. And let’s be honest: the suckers who were randomized into the “self-care book” group knew darn well that they got the short end of the stick! So I don’t view this as strong evidence of a mechanistic relationship between stretching and back pain (i.e. that the back pain is caused by tightness in some specific muscle, and stretching releases the pressure to eliminate the pain). But that’s kind of beside the point. The stretching made people feel better — and for a very simple, low-cost, low-risk, uninvasive intervention (unlike, say, surgery), that’s a good enough outcome.