To stretch or not to stretch


DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I’ve played sports all my life and have been on many school teams, including college-level teams. Always before practices and games we had to do stretching exercises. I wondered then what good they did, and I still wonder. I don’t see many teams going through those drills. Maybe they’re doing them in the locker room.

Now I play golf every day, with a different group each day. All the golfers I play with put a club behind their back and do twists. Does this accomplish anything? — R.B.

ANSWER: Stretching exercises are said to increase flexibility, improve performance and prevent injuries. Proof supporting these benefits isn’t overwhelming.

The prevention-of-injury goal was recently dealt a blow by the USA Track and Field study of 1,400 runners. The runners were divided into two groups; one group stretched before running and the other did no stretching. The stretchers had no fewer injuries than the nonstretchers.

Flexibility is important in some sports like gymnastics and dancing, which really is a sport. Most sports don’t require extreme flexibility. Joints have to move freely. If a person has such stiff joints that the moves of a particular sport can’t be accomplished, then stretching is desirable. I personally don’t see it as an important element in all sports or in all players. Your golfing friends’ club-behind-the-back twists are a waste of time. However, if they think they’re doing themselves good, let them continue.

As for enhanced sports performance from stretching exercises, I can’t find any proof. I don’t think any exists. If it does, please forward that to me, and I’ll change my tune.

The best way to stretch is to stretch to the point of slight discomfort and hold that position for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Don’t bounce into a stretch. That invites injury.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have a tear in the labrum of my right shoulder. Will shoulder exercises strengthen or exacerbate the tear? I’m not a candidate for surgery because of leaking heart valves. I want to get back to playing tennis. — A.K.

ANSWER: The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The upper arm bone ends in a structure that has a ball shape. It fits into the shoulder socket. The labrum is a ring of cartilage that encircles the socket to give it more depth and to stabilize the shoulder.

A labral tear causes deep shoulder pain with increased pain when the arm is raised over the head. It also might cause popping or clicking noises on shoulder movement or a catching of the shoulder. Falling on outstretched arms is one way to tear the labrum. Overuse injuries from throwing or swinging a tennis racket also can cause tears.

Labrum cartilage has a poor blood supply, so injuries take a long time to heal. Shoulder exercises strengthen shoulder muscles, and that can compensate for a torn labrum. However, the exercises should be supervised by a physical therapist. Without supervision, you can create greater trouble. Even though you have leaky heart valves, does your doctor think you might be able to withstand arthroscopic surgery, done through small incisions? It’s not much more of a stress than playing tennis is.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am 37. My wife says I am going to get knee arthritis because I run every day. Is that true? — L.P.

ANSWER: Running doesn’t injure knees and doesn’t lead to arthritis. Aging, obesity and previous knee trauma do.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from