Stretching and Arthritis

Many arthritis sufferers complain of a little stiffness in the morning. Then there’s Jane Kowalski,* an 83-year-old living in Baltimore. She often woke up feeling like her joints had been dipped in cement. On some mornings, she couldn’t even get out of bed without help.

Now Kowalski has a new way to start the day. Instead of lying there helpless, she takes the time to stretch all of her muscles before she even gets out of bed. Her morning stretches help keep her joints flexible and functional. They also provide the perfect warm-up for her other morning exercises, which include lifting weights. She never skips her stretches, even on days when her joints don’t feel like cooperating. “I do the best I can,” she says. “Sometimes it hurts, but I loosen up as I go.”

Why is stretching good for your body?

Stretching should be part of every arthritis patient’s daily routine, says Barbara Resnick, PhD, a nurse practitioner with the University of Maryland School of Nursing. A good stretch accomplishes two things. First, it helps prevent injuries by warming up muscles and tendons. Warm muscles are more limber and less likely to tear. Although the value of stretching to prevent injury has been challenged in two recent studies, the Arthritis Foundation strongly supports stretching as a tool for sufferers.

“Stretching is a must before any exercise,” Resnick says. Stretching is also a perfect antidote to stiffness. A good stretch every day helps keep joints flexible enough to bend, twist, and do just about anything else asked of them, she says. However, Resnick cautions that rheumatoid arthritis sufferers should give their sore joints a rest during flare-ups. Even a mild stretch could further inflame the joint.

When done properly, stretches are slow, gentle, and easy. People with arthritis shouldn’t bounce during a stretch or push to the point of extreme pain, Resnick says. She recommends stretching until you feel mild discomfort, holding the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, and repeating it three to five times. All told, a person should spend at least 10 minutes each day stretching, and work each major muscle group, she says.

Stretching may hurt a little at first, but the pain quickly gives way to feelings of relaxation, flexibility, and relief. Stretches are so gentle on the joints that they can be done by anyone at any age in any stage of arthritis, Resnick says. “Older people really love to stretch,” she says. “It just feels good to them.”

Some people with arthritis may want to take a yoga class. Yoga combines stretching, strength training, and range-of-motion exercises all in one discipline, and preliminary studies indicate that it may help relieve the pain and tenderness of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. As an added benefit, yoga can help you relax and relieve some of the stresses of living with arthritis.

What kind of stretches are best?

Your doctor, personal trainer, or physical therapist can recommend specific stretches that are right for you. You may also consider trying these excellent stretches and warm-up exercises from the Arthritis Foundation:

  • Stand up straight with your arms forward and your palms facing inward. Slowly raise each arm as high as possible (either together or one at a time). Slowly move each arm back to the starting position.
  • While standing straight, shrug each shoulder upwards. Lower the shoulder and repeat.
  • Stand up straight while holding onto the back of a chair with one hand. Slowly lift one leg to the side, then cross it in front of the other leg. Return to the starting position and do the same thing with the other leg. (This may not be appropriate for someone who has had a total hip replacement.)
  • While standing up straight, reach for the sky with both hands. Hold the stretch and slowly lower your arms.
  • Bend over and extend your arms toward your toes. Hold and slowly straighten.
  • Make a fist. Hold and relax.

Stretching is easy, safe, and deeply rewarding. It’s something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed. Or, in many cases, a way to get out of bed. Whether you need help to get through the day or just want to feel a little less stiff, stretching is an excellent first step.

* Jane Kowalski is a pseudonym.


Interview with Barbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP, professor at the Maryland University School of Nursing in Baltimore.

Resnick B. Managing arthritis with exercise. Geriatric Nursing, 22: 143-150.

Arthritis Foundation. Warm up right.

National Institutes of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Health Topics: Questions and Answers about arthritis and exercise.

Measuring the effects of yoga in rheumatoid arthritis, Haslock I; Monro R; Nagarathna R; Nagendra HR; Raghuram NV, British Journal Rheumatology, Vol. 33 (3): 787-8

Beyond the Mind-Body Exercise Hype, Jeffrey C. Ives, PhD; Jacob Sosnoff, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 28, No. 3

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