Flexibility Exercises to Help Your Rheumatoid Arthritis

Moves to do to help your RA.

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on October 28, 2013
4 min read

You can do gentle moves to ease pain, avoid injuries, and improve your balance. They help your joints work well.

There are two basic types of flexibility exercises.

  1. Stretches keep your muscles elastic, which helps you move your joints more easily.
  2. Range-of-motion exercises keep your joints moving their full range and lessen stiffness.

You can do simple stretches daily, even during an RA flare. Try it for 10 minutes three times a day when you have the energy. That tends to make it more manageable, says Maura Iversen, PT, a professor and chair of the physical therapy program at Northeastern University in Boston.

With RA, sometimes it can take an hour or more for morning joint stiffness and pain to fade after you wake up. To get going, Iversen suggests you try these stretches before you get out of bed.

1) Hamstring stretch

  • Sit up straight. Extend your right leg straight out in front of you, so it rests on the bed. Bend your left leg and rest your left foot on the bed.
  • Slowly slide your hands down your right leg until your feel a gentle stretch along the back of it. This stretches your hamstring. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Then, swap your leg positions and stretch your left hamstring.

2) Calf stretch

  • Sit in the same position as the hamstring stretch: right leg straight, left leg bent with your foot resting on the bed.
  • Loop a towel or stretchy band around the sole of your right foot. If you can, keeping your right leg straight, slowly pull on the towel or band, pulling your toes toward you. Feel a gentle stretch in your calf (the lower muscle of your leg). If you need to keep a little bend in your knee, that’s OK. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Then switch your leg positions and stretch your left calf.

Ask a physical therapist or your rheumatologist to recommend some other stretches to add to your routine.

With range-of-motion exercises, you move your joints to keep them loose so they don’t stiffen up over time. Make these exercises part of your daily routine. Do them a couple of times during the day.

Try these moves during your morning shower or afterward. The warm water can relax your muscles and joints and make it easier to move.

Shoulder Rolls

Do gentle shoulder or arm rotations. Roll your shoulders forward slowly five times. Then roll them backward slowly five times.

Arm Circles

Lift your right arm out to the side, palm up. Do five arm circles forward, then five circles backward. Switch arms and repeat. Next, switch back to your right arm for more arm circles. This time try it with your palm facing down toward the ground. Do it with your left arm, too.

If you have problems with balance, sit in a shower chair when you stretch. Or do your exercises as soon as you are out of the shower, while your joints are still warm.

If your hands and wrists are stiff and achy, try these flexibility exercises from April Davis, an occupational therapist at NYU Langone Medical Center.

First, soak your hands in warm water with Epsom salts for a few minutes. Or do these exercises after washing dishes in warm water.

  • Sit down. Put both hands flat on a table with your fingers spread slightly. Lift both thumbs up off the table. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat five times.
  • Turn your hands over, palms facing up. Try to touch your thumb to the base of your pinky finger. Then relax. Try to tap the base of each finger with your thumb too -- ring finger, middle, pointer. Repeat five times.
  • Straighten one arm out in front of you. Make a fist with your hand. Pretend your fist is the tip of a pen and trace alphabet letters in the air. Try not to move your arm. Just bend at your wrist.

If you have a big flare, try do range-of-motion exercises at least once a day. You can ask your physical therapist for help doing those exercises on rough days, or ask them to teach a family member how to help you.

You’ll do slow, controlled movements that are good for range of motion and balance.

Tell your yoga teacher you have RA so she can adapt certain poses that might be tricky. You can also use foam yoga blocks to help support your body during poses. Listen to your body, and only do what's comfortable for you.

Or try tai chi. Like yoga, it's great exercise, but it's not too hard on your joints, Davis says.

There's another benefit. "From what [people] tell me, the meditation element of yoga and tai chi helps with pain control," she says.

Keep your moves gentle. They should feel good. Don't stretch so much that you're sore afterward. Try moist heat or ice for comfort after exercise.

Heat wraps, warm showers, and warm, wet towels give deeper relief than dry heating pads. People with RA can be sensitive to extreme temperatures and chemical-based heat packs, so use towels between the pack and your skin.

Many people also don't like ice. It makes them so tense that their muscles don't relax. But if ice works for you, go for it.