WebMD Presents: Arthritis - Therapy in Motion - Stretching

The Flexible Way to Go

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
3 min read

If arthritis pain has you chained to your chair, you must do what you dread most: Get up and move that aching body. Otherwise, it will only get worse.

By staying put, you allow your muscles and ligaments to tighten up, so your joints won't bend as far as they used to. You also burn fewer calories, and the weight you pack on as a result puts more strain on your joints.

That doesn't mean you should jump up and put yourself through a grueling workout right now. If you're not in shape, you have to ease into it. The best way to begin -- and to end -- is by stretching.

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, says Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. It's true for anyone, even kids. Nevertheless, "The older you get, the more important it is," Rubin says. To keep your muscles limber, you must also stretch after you exercise.

In a sense, stretching and strengthening are the ying and yang of exercise: 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," says Geri Neuberger, nursing professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center. 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.

Here are three other simple stretches:

  • 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," Rubin says. You should stretch every day.

It's simple to begin stretching. There are books and videotapes that cover many techniques. You can also order free brochures from The Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org). Just remember, stretching is one workout that demands no pain, and offers great gain.