Joint stiffness is a common occurrence for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Over-the-counter medication, a hot or cold compress, and a healthy diet has been known to help, but in addition to those, experts also recommend taking part in daily exercises and stretching. According to Arthritis Health, joint stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis may be relieved by gentle stretching that gets blood flowing and joint fluids moving. Stretching may also help maintain or even improve the joints’ range of motion. Dr. Nilanjana Bose, MD, MBA, a Rheumatologist with Lonestar Rheumatology in Houston says low-impact stretches are good stretches to start with, especially if you’re new to that type of physical activity.
“Stretches help loosen up the body and improve muscle tone and joint health,” Dr. Bose says. “I recommend low-impact stretches for patients who are just learning how to use the joints and be flexible. These aren’t very difficult and don’t involve extreme positioning.” She adds, “Learning to be flexible and stretch can help overall joint health and muscle quality. Some patients really like going to physical therapy, and I think that helps.” Below, read what one fitness trainer and one physical therapist had to say about stretches they recommend for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Charlee Atkins, CSCS, an NYC-based fitness expert and founder of Le Sweat TV recommends doing the 90-90 stretch as it’s a mobility exercise that decreases muscle tension, increases range of motion, and stability at the joint to limit pain or decrease the chance of an injury. All you have to do is start with both knees bent going in the same direction and flex both (legs should make two 90-degree angles), sit up tall, and keep the back straight. Passively stretch for 60 seconds, and intermittently contract/relax for an additional 60 seconds (two minutes total). Depending on where you want to feel the stretch will determine which way you angle the torso. She adds that a good way to modify this stretch is by elevating your sitting position on a chair or yoga block. And if you’re looking for higher intensity, you can intermittently drive the shin down in the ground for about 10-15 seconds at a time.
Another stretch recommended by Kasia Gondek, PT, DPT, CSCS of Fusion Wellness Physical Therapy in Southern California is ankle stretches. These consist of seated ankle circles where you rotate your ankles in clockwise and counterclockwise directions within your available pain-free range and seated ankle pumps where you pump your ankles up and down as if you were pressing and releasing the feet from a gas or brake pedal. For both, you’ll want to perform 10-15 repetitions moving slowly.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of downward dog, but how about cat-cow? If not, it’s definitely a stretch those with rheumatoid arthritis will want to partake in according to Charlee. To do it, start in a quadruped position, toes tucked under and shoulders over the wrists and hips over the knees. Next, you’ll want to take the spine into flexion by pushing into the ground and pulling your belly button to the sky. Slowly move to extension by doing the opposite and think about spreading the chest. Repeat the movement for 10 reps or do the movement for two minutes. This stretch targets the spine and is a good core strengthening move that helps with lower back pain.
Shoulder CARs (Controlled Articular Rotations)
Brushing teeth, driving a car, and other everyday activities can be challenging when rheumatoid arthritis the shoulders. That’s why doing daily shoulder exercises can help ease joint pain in that area. A stretch that focuses on the shoulders is shoulder CARs. To do this stretch, begin in a quadruped position with the fingertips pointed to the sides. Then, draw a box with your shoulder joint which will move the scapulae on the back keeping the arms locked. Shoulder movements for this include, shrugging, pushing the ground away, pulling the shoulders down, and pulling the shoulders blades together. Repeat this for about 45 seconds in each direction.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
The seated hamstring stretch is also another good exercise that’s gentle and does not force a joint or muscle beyond its limits, according to Kasia. To do this one, straighten out one leg at a time until you feel a stretch behind the knee and thigh. You can lean your trunk/torso slightly forward to increase the stretch if needed. Hold for 30 seconds, then return to starting position and repeat one more time.
Seated Calf Stretch
Your calf muscles serve many everyday functions, including standing and walking, so they can easily become tired from overuse. To help prevent that, Kasia recommends a seated calf stretch. To do this, grab a towel or belt, loop it around the forefoot and straighten your knee to a comfortable range and hold the ends of the towel or belt in your hands. Then, gently pull the ends toward you so the ankle bends back toward the shin. You should feel a gentle stretch at the calf. Hold for 30 seconds, then return to starting position and repeat one more time.
Arthritis, particularly rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, can affect the balls of the feet and other toe joints, according to Arthritis Health. Toe curls are an easy stretch you can do right when you wake up before you get out of bed as they can be done while sitting in a chair or even lying down. To do them, bend and straighten your toes toward the sole of your foot. Then, slowly uncurl your toes and extend them up and back, towards the top of the foot. Perform 10-15 repetitions moving slowly.
The carpal joints in the wrist are especially susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis inflammation, according to Arthritis Health. To loosen up stiff wrists, Kasia suggests wrist circles where you rotate your wrists in clockwise and counterclockwise directions within your available pain-free range and wrist bending. For this one, you’ll want to bend your wrists toward and away from each other within your pain-free range with elbows bent at your sides and palms facing each other. Perform both stretches 10-15 times moving slowly.
Other Exercises to Try
And if you’re looking for additional exercises to help ease joint pain and maintain flexibility, try grasp exercise, forearm exercise, and heel slides, according to Kasia. Charlee also suggests completing some strengthening exercises as well such as pulling (rows, assisted pull-ups) and pushing exercises (push-ups, chest press), knee strengthening exercises (squats, lunges), and hip strengthening (deadlifts, glute bridges). But remember, no matter what, do what’s comfortable for you and your body. Everyone is at a different level so don’t push yourself if you’re just starting out. It takes time to be where you want in terms of flexibility and stamina, but if you keep it up, you’ll get there in no time.
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