Best Stretches for RA
It’s perfectly understandable that when your joints are feeling stiff and painful, one of the last things you want to do is stretch your body. But science says otherwise: In fact, if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), stretching can actually make you feel better by increasing your range of motion and mobility while decreasing the stiffness contributing to your pain. Here’s what the experts have to say about the benefits of stretching, plus how to do it properly to put your body on the path to pain relief.
Stretching Prevents Muscle Shortening
Stiffness and reduced range of motion are hallmark symptoms of RA. The less you move and stretch the muscles surrounding your joints, the less likely your joints will maintain their full range of motion. Over time with RA, your surrounding muscles can shorten, making it that much harder to keep moving, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. Daily flexibility exercises can help you maintain your full range of motion so you can keep doing the everyday things you love.
Stretching Aids in Pain Reduction
People living with RA often describe their pain as constantly present. And when the disease worsens, known as an RA flare, joint pain is one of the major complaints. Stretching has been shown to help RA pain. In a study in The Journal of Clinical Care, researchers found there was significant pain reduction among people with RA who engaged in 30 minutes of stretching, three times a week, for just one month.
Stretching Does the Body Good
Stretching is beneficial beyond simply aiding the specific joints affected by RA. “It’s important to not just address the painful areas, but also the areas that surround the painful joints and are connected to them,” says Carol Ibex, a yoga instructor and owner of Foundations School of Yoga in Stevensville, MD. “In yoga, we look at the body as a whole, everything connected. This leads us to know that if we want to reduce pain in the hand or elbow, then we must also look at the feet and the spine.”
While the benefits of stretching are many, it’s also important to not overstretch your muscles and ligaments. With the exercises that follow, the goal is to stretch only to the point of tension, not pain. Your stretching movements should involve slow and constant motion that is held in the final position for 15 to 30 seconds, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Repeat each exercise three to four times, then go on to the next.
Standing Side-Body Stretch
Yoga poses that encourage you to lift up and out of painful joints can be helpful, says Ibex. Stand with your feet together or about six inches apart. Place your arms at your sides. Gently sweep your arms out to the side and then up overhead. Let your palms face each other and intertwine your fingers if possible. Exhale as you press your left hip to the side and bend your upper torso to the right. Gently hold and come back to center. Repeat in the other direction. Sweep your arms back down to the sides of the body.
Laura Brunnhoelzl, a Crossfit trainer and movement and mobility coach from Vitality Fitness in Concord, NC, suggests this arthritis-friendly stretch: To begin, lie flat on your back. Outstretch your arms to each side from your body. Bend right knee and gently bring right leg across your body, allowing your right hip to leave the ground. Move right knee towards the ground on the left side of your body, while gently twisting your torso to the right as far as comfortable. To modify, use a yoga strap to help guide your foot and maintain a comfortable range. Repeat on opposite side.
This stretch will loosen your lower back and hamstring muscles. “Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart,” says Brunnhoelzl. “Fold forward gently, reaching out until your hands reach the ground. Walk your hands forward until your back is straight and you are in the plank position. Walk your hands back towards your body and return to the standing position. To modify, stand about one foot away from a table or bed. Reach out until your hands touch the surface. Walk your hands forward and back, staying comfortable but feeling a gentle stretch, and then return to standing.”
This stretch from Brunnhoelzl helps relax lower back and abdominal muscles. Lie on a mat, face down. Place your hands under your shoulders, next to your body. Gently press your hands into the floor and straighten your arms, raising your torso off the ground. Feel the stretch, then return to the floor. To modify, instead of placing your hands on the ground, place your forearms next to your body and gently press up to your forearms.
Brunnhoelzl explains that this next stretch can maintain or improve the range of motion in your knees. Start by sitting on the ground with your legs in front of you. Bring one knee up toward your chest, while dragging your heel on the ground. Hug your knee gently when it gets close to your chest. Slowly lower your knee to the ground and switch legs. To modify, sit in a chair and slowly bring one leg at a time toward your chest, hugging gently.
RA usually starts in the small joints of the hands and feet with at least 70% of people with RA reporting hand and wrist dysfunction. Finger stretches can be very helpful, says Aundra Anderson, a certified personal trainer in Centreville, MD. “Start by placing both hands palms facing down on a surface in front of you, with your fingers spread wide,” she says. “One at a time, including your thumb, life each digit as high as you comfortably can toward the back of your hand. Return each finger to the table and repeat.”
Pain Reduction: Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology. (2017). “Pain mechanisms in rheumatoid arthritis.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28967354/
Pain Reduction: Journal of Clinical Care and Skills. (2020). “Comparison of the effect of sole reflexology massage and stretching exercises on pain severity of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.” jccs.yums.ac.ir/browse.php?a_id=79&sid=1&slc_lang=fa
Range of Motion: Harvard Medical School. (2016). “Stretching to help arthritis pain.” health.harvard.edu/pain/stretching-to-help-arthritis-pain
RA and Movement: Centers for Disease Control. (2018). “Physical activity for arthritis.” cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/physical-activity-overview.html
Whole Body: American College of Sports Medicine. (n.d.) “Resources for the exercise physiologist.” acsm.org/docs/default-source/publications-files/acsm-resources-exercise-physiologist-download.pdf
Getting Started: American College of Sports Medicine. (n.d.) “Resources for the exercise physiologist.” acsm.org/docs/default-source/publications-files/acsm-resources-exercise-physiologist-download.pdf
Finger Stretch: Strengthening and Stretching for Rheumatoid Arthritis of the Hand (SARAH). A Randomised Controlled Trial and Economic Evaluation. (2015). “Introduction.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279708/