Knee stretches encourage flexibility in the knee joint and surrounding muscle. Stretching is a part of most knee arthritis exercise programs.
For people with knee arthritis, there are 4 target muscle groups for stretching:
- Hamstrings (in the back of the thighs)
- Quadriceps (in the front of the thighs)
- Hip flexors (at the front of the hips)
- Calf muscles (lower leg muscles)
See Knee Anatomy
The stretches described below can be done once or twice a day. When doing the stretches, it is important to maintain the right form to avoid straining joints. Use modifications if necessary.
With all the stretches, as the person feels the muscle loosening up they can work into the stretch deeper to continue getting more range of motion.
The hamstring muscles are located on the back of the thigh. Tight hamstrings can cause knee pain, and stretching can help relieve that pain.
Hamstring stretches should generally be done twice daily, such as once in the morning and once in the evening.
Supine Leg Raise
A supine leg raise is a gentle way to stretch the hamstring muscles. Most people will need a strap, such as a rope or belt, a wall corner, or door jam to perform this stretch.
- Begin the stretch by lying on the back with both legs extended.
- Bend the left knee and bring the left foot flat on the mat, in front of the buttocks.
- Slowly begin to raise the right foot to the sky, keeping the right leg as straight as possible and the back flat against the floor. To help ensure you keep your right leg straight, you may wrap the strap around the right foot and hold the strap in both hands. Alternatively, you may rest the straightened leg against a door jam.
- Keep the back flat on the floor by engaging core muscles; contract the gluteus and abdominal muscles, which will pull the belly towards the floor.
- This stretch should be held for 20 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
Hamstring stretches can also be done in a sitting position, where the degree of stretch can be varied based on the placement of the leg:
- While sitting at the edge of a chair, straighten one leg in front of the body with the heel on the floor.
- Then, sit up straight and try pushing the navel towards the thigh without leaning the trunk of the body forwards.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
- Repeat 3 times for each leg.
Watch: Seated Chair Hamstring Stretch for Low Back Pain Relief Video on Spine-health.com
People who are more flexible may need to elevate the foot on a stool or chair to get a deep stretch.
The quadriceps muscles are the strongest muscles in the body. They are located at the front of the thigh and control the extension (straightening) of the knee.
Standing Quadriceps Stretch
This stretch can be felt in the front of the right thigh.
- Place the left hand on a wall or a chair for balance
- Bend the right knee and bring the right foot back. Reach back with the right hand and grab the ankle.
- With a firm grip on the ankle, use leg strength to push the ankle up and back, away from the buttocks. (Pulling the ankle toward the buttocks can put unwanted stress on the knee.)
- Keep the pelvis tucked so that the lower spine is in a neutral position. This position protects the back and provides a better stretch in the quadriceps.
Modification: A person may make this stretch easier by placing a chair behind him or her. Instead of reaching for the ankle with the right hand, bend the right leg until the shin rests on the seat of the chair.
Repeat the stretch twice on each side, holding each leg for 20 seconds.
Hip Flexor Muscles Stretch
The hip flexors are the group of muscles connecting the torso and the leg. They are involved in bending forward at the waist and in moving the knee upward, towards the torso.
Kneeling Hip Flexors Stretch
This stretch is best done on a mat or carpet.
- Kneel on the left knee, resting the left shin on the floor.
- Extend the right leg forward, keeping the right knee bent and the right foot flat on the floor.
- Rest hands on right knee and lean body forward.
- Do not let the right knee extend forward past the toes of the right foot (about 90º)
- Keep the pelvis tucked so that the lower spine is in a neutral position. This position protects the back and provides a better stretch in the hip flexor muscles.
- Engage the core muscles to help keep the body stable and upright.
Repeat the stretch 3 times on each side, holding each leg for 20 seconds.
Calf Muscle Stretch
The calf is located at the back of the lower leg and is made up of two paired muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The calf muscles are essential for walking, stair climbing, jumping, and running.
Standing Calf Muscle Stretch
This stretch is done two ways to properly stretch both calf muscles.
To stretch the gastrocnemius muscle:
- Face a wall and stand about 2 paces away from the wall.
- Extend both arms, placing hands on the wall at or just below shoulder height.
- Step the right leg slightly forward with the right knee bent, keeping the left leg straight and angled back.
- Keep the pelvis tucked so that the lower spine is in a neutral position to protect the lower back.
- Stretch the left heel toward the floor, and lean the body forward using the wall for support. This should produce a stretch in the back of the left leg.
- To increase the stretch, move back from the wall a little more.
To stretch the soleus muscle, do the same stretch as above, but bend the left knee slightly to isolate the soleus muscle during the stretch.
Repeat both stretches 3 times on each leg, holding for 10 to 20 seconds each.
As a general rule, do not hold the breath while stretching—continue to breathe throughout the stretch. Keep movements smooth and avoid bouncing or straining.
While the above knee stretches are generally appropriate for anyone with knee arthritis, it is always advisable to discuss any stretching exercises with a physical therapist or other health care provider.