Background: Contractures are a common complication of neurological and musculoskeletal conditions, and are characterised by a reduction in joint mobility. Stretch is widely used for the treatment and prevention of contractures. However, it is not clear whether stretch is effective.
Objectives: To determine the effects of stretch on contractures in people with, or at risk of, contractures.
Search strategy: Electronic searches were conducted on CENTRAL, DARE, HTA (The Cochrane Library); MEDLINE; CINAHL; EMBASE; SCI-EXPANDED; and PEDro (April 2009).
Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials and controlled clinical trials of stretch applied for the purpose of treating or preventing contractures were included.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently selected trials, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias. The primary outcomes of interest were joint mobility and quality of life. The secondary outcomes were pain, spasticity, activity limitation and participation restriction. Outcomes were evaluated immediately after intervention, in the short term (one to seven days) and in the long term (> one week). Effects were expressed as mean differences or standardised mean differences with 95% confidence intervals (CI). Meta-analyses were conducted with a random-effects model.
Main results: Thirty-five studies with 1391 participants met the inclusion criteria. No study performed stretch for more than seven months. In people with neurological conditions, there was moderate to high quality evidence to indicate that stretch does not have clinically important immediate (mean difference 3 degrees ; 95% CI 0 to 7), short-term (mean difference 1 degrees ; 95% CI 0 to 3) or long-term (mean difference 0 degrees ; 95% CI -2 to 2) effects on joint mobility. The results were similar for people with non-neurological conditions. For all conditions, there is little or no effect of stretch on pain, spasticity, activity limitation, participation restriction or quality of life.
Authors' conclusions: Stretch does not have clinically important effects on joint mobility in people with, or at risk of, contractures if performed for less than seven months. The effects of stretch performed for periods longer than seven months have not been investigated.