Stretching range of motion exercises for arthritis

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

Click here: Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit

From the Arthritis Foundation and the American Physical Therapy Association

The term, "arthritis" literally means "joint inflammation."

It refers to more than 100 rheumatic diseases and related conditions that can cause pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints and connective tissues. Affecting one in every seven Americans of all ages, arthritis also can lead to the deterioration of the joints' support systems, including muscles, tendons, ligaments and other parts of the body.

While medication may be part of a recommended treatment plan for people with arthritis, a tailored exercise program can be beneficial to management of pain and fatigue and to preserve joint structure and function. Once you know what type of arthritis you have and understand what symptoms you can expect, you and your physician or physical therapist can develop a balanced program of physical activity to reduce the damaging affects of arthritis and promote overall good health.

In fact, if there is a “fountain of youth” available to anyone, it is exercise done consistently, properly, and regularly.

Stiffness, pain and swelling associated with arthritis can severely reduce the range of motion in joints (the normal distance joints can move in certain directions). Avoiding physical activity because of pain or discomfort also can lead to significant muscle loss and excessive weight gain. Exercise, as part of a comprehensive arthritis treatment plan, can improve joint mobility, muscle strength, overall physical conditioning and help to maintain a healthy weight.

A tailored program that includes a balance of three types of exercises - range-of-motion, strengthening and endurance exercises - can relieve the symptoms of arthritis and protect joints from further damage. Exercise also may:

• Help maintain normal joint movement
• Increase muscle flexibility and strength
• Help maintain weight to reduce pressure on joints
• Help keep bone and cartilage tissue strong and healthy
• Improve endurance and cardiovascular fitness

Daily range-of-motion and stretching exercises increase joint and muscle flexibility. You'll soon see and feel the difference with smoother, less painful movements and better posture. If you do nothing else, fitness experts urge people with arthritis to stretch all of the major muscle groups daily, placing a gentle emphasis on joints with decreased range of motion.

Consult a physical therapist or fitness specialist knowledgeable about arthritis to develop a set of range-of-motion and stretching exercises especially for you, then check back often to ensure you have the proper form.

Start every workout with a warm-up before you stretch. The warm-up - a five-minute walk or warm shower - heats your muscles, increasing the flow of oxygen and making them more limber.

Stretching not only makes a good beginning to a workout, it also makes a good ending, helping to flush metabolic by-products. Always practice slow, controlled movements, and stop the stretch when you start to feel the burn. Don't push to the point of pain, and never "bounce" into a stretch.

To help relieve pain, people with arthritis often keep affected joints bent - especially in the knees, hands and fingers - because it's more comfortable during the early stages of arthritis. While this may temporarily relieve discomfort, holding a joint in the same position for too long can cause permanent loss of mobility and hinder daily activities.

Range-of-motion exercises (also called stretching or flexibility exercises) help maintain normal joint function by increasing and preserving joint mobility and flexibility. In this group of exercises, affected joints are conditioned by gently straightening and bending the joints in a controlled manner as far as they comfortably will go. During the course of a range-of-motion exercise program, the joints are stretched progressively farther (maintaining comfort levels) until normal or near-normal range is achieved and maintained.

In addition to preserving joint function, range-of-motion exercises are an important form of warm-up and stretching, and should be done prior to performing strengthening or endurance exercises or engaging in any other physical activity. A physician or physical therapist can provide you with instructions on how to perform range-of-motion exercises for the fingers, shoulders and back, chin and neck, hips, knees and ankles.

Stretches are range-of-motion exercises that reduce stiffness and help keep your joints flexible, which can make daily activities easier. Simply put, your "range of motion" is the normal amount your joints can be moved in certain directions. Stretching gradually expands that range, giving you greater flexibility and less pain.

You should always stretch before you attempt any workout. If you are stiff while you're exercising, you are more likely to hurt yourself. The older you get, the more important it is. To keep your muscles limber, you must also stretch after you exercise.

In a sense, stretching and strengthening are complementary: one enhances the other.

When you get up from a chair and climb stairs you use your quadriceps -- leg muscles above the knee. It's important to build strength in those muscles. Before you do, stretch them. Stand up holding onto a wall for support. Reach around behind you and grab your ankle (with your right hand to stretch the right leg, and vice versa). Bending the knee, gently pull your foot up towards your behind. When you feel the muscle stretch, hold it for about ten to 20 seconds. Let go, and do the other leg.

Three simple stretches:

Only do these after checking with your physician or physical therapist

• To stretch your calves, stand about two feet away from a wall. Put your hands on the wall and lean towards it, keeping your feet flat on the floor and your back straight. You'll feel tension in your calf muscles. Hold it like that for about ten to 20 seconds, and then ease up and do it again.

• It's also good to stretch the hamstrings -- the muscles running up the back of your leg. To do so, lay flat on your back. Bend your knee, then bring your thigh back and hug it to your chest. When you feel tension in the back of your leg, stop and hold it there for about ten to 20 seconds. Let go and do the other leg the same way.

• You'll want to work on your upper body, too. To stretch the muscles of the upper body, simply stand and hold your arms straight out in front of you for about five seconds. Relax and do it again nine more times for a total of ten. Then stretch your arms straight out behind you so that your shoulder blades touch. You will feel the tension. Count to five, holding your arms like that. Do it nine more times.

These stretches are good to do even if you're not getting ready to work out. The purpose of stretching is basically to improve the range of motion in your joints. You should stretch every day.

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Click here Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit

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