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Osteoarthritis Health Center

Exercise to Treat Arthritis

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Although arthritis treatment usually includes medication, a tailored arthritis exercise program can help relieve pain and fatigue and preserve joint structure and function.

The stiffness, pain, and swelling associated with arthritis can severely reduce the range of motion of joints (the 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, and overall physical conditioning, and help you maintain a healthy weight.

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Once you know what type of arthritis you have and understand your symptoms, you and your doctor or physical therapist can develop a balanced program of physical activity to reduce the damaging effects of arthritis and promote optimal health.

What Are the Benefits of Exercise as an Arthritis Treatment?

A tailored program that includes a balance of three types of exercises -- range-of-motion, strengthening, and endurance -- 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

What Are Range-of-Motion Exercises?

To help relieve pain, people with arthritis often keep their affected joints bent -- especially those in the knees, hands, and fingers -- because it's more comfortable in that position. Although this may temporarily relieve discomfort, holding a joint in the same position for too long can cause permanent loss of mobility and further hinder the ability to perform 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, gently straightening and bending the joints in a controlled manner as far as they comfortably will go can help condition the affected joints. During the course of a range-of-motion exercise program, the joints are stretched progressively farther until normal or near-normal range is achieved and maintained. This helps to maintain comfort while function is preserved.

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 doctor or physical therapist can provide you with instructions on how to perform range-of-motion exercises.

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