Joint stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis may be relieved by gentle stretching that gets blood flowing and joint fluids moving. Many health care practitioners recommend doing gentle stretches each day to ease the joint stiffness. These stretches may also help maintain or even improve the joints’ range of motion.
Many stretches can be done while sitting or lying down. The recommended number of repetitions and sets listed here are general guidelines. More or less may be appropriate based on an individual’s physical ability and disease activity.
It is okay if a stretch is a little uncomfortable, but stop any movement that triggers sharp pain or moderate to severe pain.
Gentle Stretches for the Wrist, Elbow, and Shoulder
Brushing teeth, driving a car, and other everyday activities can be challenging when RA affects the wrists, elbows, or shoulders. These exercises are designed to loosen up those joints and encourage better arm and wrist function.
Wrist flexion and extension
The carpal joints in the wrist are especially susceptible to RA inflammation. To loosen up stiff wrists, try this flexion and extension exercise:
- Hold arms straight in front of you with palms facing down
- Make fists with your hands
- Flex wrists so that your fists move downward, then extend wrists so that your fists move up and back toward you
Repeat 10 to 20 times. If shoulder joint pain makes it difficult to keep the arms raised, lower them to a more comfortable angle.
This exercise is similar to wrist flexion and extension, but instead of moving the fists backward and forward, rotate them in circles. Alternate clockwise and counterclockwise.
RA inflammation can cause the muscles and tendons in the forearms to get stiff. This exercise can help improve and maintain flexibility:
- Hold arms by your sides, with elbows bent at a 90° angle and palms facing up
- Keeping elbows bent, flip the palms to face down
Repeat 10 to 20 times.
Bending and straightening the elbows through their full range of motion is good for joint mobility.
- Sit or stand with arms down straight by your sides (or as straight as reasonably possible)
- Bend at the elbow, using the biceps to bring both hands up to shoulder height
- Slowly return to starting position
Repeat 10 to 20 times. If this exercise is too easy, consider adding light weights. Even 1 lb or 2 lb weights can make a noticeable difference and provide the added benefit of building strength.
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Gentle Stretches for the Foot and Ankle
Pain and stiffness in the feet and ankles can make it difficult to get around. These symptoms may also cause changes in walking stride, such as a limp, that lead to problems in the knees and hips. Try these exercises to ease pain and loosen up the joints in the feet and ankles.
Ankle flexion and extension
This exercise can be done while sitting in a chair or lying down, before getting out of bed. When sitting in a chair, do each leg separately and be sure not to rest weight on the active foot.
- Straighten the legs
- Extend the ankles, so that toes point away from the body
- Flex the ankles, so that toes move back and toward you
Repeat 10 to 20 times.
This stretch may help relieve swelling if it is done while feet are elevated—for example, lying down while feet rest on a pillow. If done standing, this stretch can help strengthen the ankles joints.
This exercise is similar to ankle flexion and extension, but instead of moving the feet backward and forward, rotate them in circles. Try 2 sets of 10, clockwise and counterclockwise.
Arthritis, particularly rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, can affect the balls of the feet and other toe joints.
Like the ankle exercises described above, toe curls can be done while sitting in a chair or even lying down, before getting out of bed. Do not rest weight on the active foot.
- Curling all the toes down, toward the sole of the foot
- Slowly uncurl toes and then extend them up and back, towards the top of the foot
Repeat 10 to 20 times.
Gentle Stretches for the Knee and Hip
While RA tends to show up in smaller joints first, larger joints can be affected, too. Keeping the knees and hips healthy and flexible helps a person be as mobile as possible—whether that means living independently without a walker, golfing once a week, or training to run a 5K race.
Wind removing pose
This exercise can be done in bed. It helps to expand and maintain range of motion in the knees and hips.
- Lie flat on your back with legs out straight (a pillow underneath your head is okay)
- Slowly slide your right foot toward your buttocks, bending at the hip and knee
- Return to the starting position
- Do the same on the left side
After repeating this movement several times, try lifting the feet off the floor and bringing both knees up to the chest at the same time. Use the arms to hug the shins close to the chest, if possible.
This gentle stretch can help loosen up the hip flexor muscles at the front of the hips as well as the glute muscles in the buttocks. These muscles are important for maintaining balance and stability when standing and walking.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, or wider for stability
- Bend the knees slightly and put hands on hips
- Keeping feet firmly planted on the floor, move hips in a circular motion
Do 10 circles, then repeat in the reverse direction. If staying balanced is a problem, use one or both hands to hold on to a door jam or countertop.
Another alternative to this exercise is cat-cow pose, which is performed on your hands and knees.