Increasing your range of motion is a medication-free way to relieve soreness and feel better in your own body.
Aches, burning, and stiffness: These painful symptoms can make even the most beloved activities feel like a chore. Suddenly it becomes a battle to open a jar of tomato sauce or shuffle down a flight of stairs.
Enter stretching. Whether you’re suffering from osteoarthritis or just looking to loosen up after being cooped up at home during the pandemic, you can benefit from putting gentle pressure on the muscles that support your achiest joints.
Common causes of painful, achy joints
But first, what causes the suffering? “One of the most common causes of joint pain is arthritis, which leads to a breakdown of cartilage on the joint surfaces,” explains Maura Blackstone, a physical therapist and certified yoga/fitness instructor. She notes that osteoarthritis and, to a lesser degree, rheumatoid arthritis, the autoimmune version, are common in the U.S. These two conditions affect nearly 25% of adults at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other explanations for joint pain stem from infection, overuse, and injury to the surrounding tissue—which is generally the case with tendinitis, says Blackstone. In all instances, stretching can help alleviate pain. It may even improve your overall health by making it easier to become active in other ways throughout the day.
The power of stretching
“Stretching is a vital but often forgotten component of exercise,” says Jerry Yoo, a physical therapist and founder of Next Level Physio in New Jersey. “Whereas strength training and aerobic exercise are frequently prioritized, everyone should remember that stretching can improve flexibility and range of motion while minimizing the risk of injury.”
To his point, one study found that adults aged 67 to 80 who committed to a yearlong stretching program not only increased their flexibility by 31%, they also improved their muscle strength by more than 10%. And a study from the journal Clinical Rehabilitation found that just four weeks of stretching three or more times per week led to dramatic reductions in neck and shoulder pain, plus improved quality-of-life scores.
For joint pain specifically, Blackstone notes that studies on yoga (which relies heavily on stretching) have overwhelmingly found that a regular practice can reduce tender and swollen joints, along with the associated pain.
The only time stretching isn’t useful for joint pain is when the underlying cause is a muscle injury. In that case, your body needs rest to heal. Blackstone recommends you skip this story and head straight to the doctor if you can’t move your joint or if the pain is intense and accompanied by fever, redness, or swelling.
Otherwise, stretching is a simple, safe way to control your everyday aches. Here are the moves that target the most common areas of suffering.
1. Standing wall press
Target: Ankles and calves
“Limited flexibility in the calf muscles can affect walking, descending stairs, and balance in older adults,” says Blackstone. In this case, pain can be dangerous: It can increase the risk of falling, a major cause of injury for older adults. Blackstone also notes that tight calves can contribute to plantar fasciitis, which causes pain along the bottom of the foot. Here’s her go-to calf stretch:
1. Reach your arms out straight so that you can place your palms flat against a wall in front of you.
2. Step your right leg back and press your heel into the ground. Your right knee should be locked so that your leg forms a straight line with your back. (Your personal flexibility level will determine how far you can step back.)
3. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds and switch legs. Repeat two to three times per side. For best results, perform this at least three times per day.
2. Child’s pose
Target: Lower back, hips, and spine
The weight-bearing joints along your spine are prone to pain, but regular stretching can help. “If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, then you’re well aware of the benefits of child’s pose,” says Yoo. “It is a relaxing and recharging stretch that targets the muscles in your spine and hips.” This exercise is particularly helpful for patients dealing with spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column) or spondylolisthesis (when vertebrae slip out of alignment), he says. But it’s also good for general pain and tension.
1. Using an exercise mat, drop down to your hands and knees. Your palms should be directly below your shoulders, and both knees should be directly below the hips. Let your big toes touch behind you and point your eyes and head toward the ground.
2. Once you’re comfortable in that position, gently float your hips back toward your heels as you lower your chest down toward your thighs. Depending on your flexibility, your butt might rest on your heels, and your chest could touch your legs. If not, that’s OK! Do your best. As you sink into the stretch, extend your arms in front of you with palms on the ground, and try to touch your forehead to the mat.
3. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat three to five times and perform at least twice a day.
3. Sitting leg stretch
Keeping your hamstrings loose reduces stress on the knees, says Shaun Toh, head physiotherapist at FHYSIO, a pain management center in Singapore. “Hamstrings cross from the hip joint down to the tibia [or shinbone], passing over two major joints,” he says. “They tend to be tight since the majority of us are sitting down for a good number of hours each day.”
While sitting, your hamstrings remain in a shortened position. But stretching can help keep them long to reduce knee and back pain. “Hamstring stretches are really simple to do and best done while sitting, whenever you are working,” says Toh.
1. Lean slightly forward from the edge of your chair. Straighten your left leg, and to keep your knee from bending, use a hand to apply gentle pressure just above your kneecap.
2. Keep your lower back straight and lean your body forward. You should feel tension increase along the back of your thigh.
3. Now switch legs. You can repeat this several times throughout the day while sitting at the computer, on the couch, or during a long road trip. (But not while you’re driving, of course.)
4. Palm press
Thanks largely to time spent typing on small smartphone screens, pain in hands and thumbs is on the rise, says Toh. “Thankfully, stretching of the palm and thumb muscles has proven to be very effective in reducing ache and discomfort,” he says.
For regular smartphone users, Toh recommends a stretch that targets the mound of muscles below the thumb, called the thenar eminence.
1. To stretch, just put your hands together (palm to palm) and spread your fingers apart.
2. Press inward while keeping your fingers splayed wide. Try not to let your hands collapse into prayer position. You should feel a stretch in the muscles below the thumbs, just inside your palms.
3. Hold the stretch while keeping your fingers apart for 30 seconds and repeat two more times.
Alternatively, Toh shares one more simple way to relieve sore hands: Lightly pinch and massage the muscles between the thumb and index finger. This is one of the body’s acupoints, he says, noting that pressure here can also help reduce stress.
5. Heart opener
Target: Chest and shoulders
By opening the muscles along your chest, shoulders, and arms, this stretch supports both your shoulder joint and the joint where your collarbone connects into your sternum. “Try this one out after a long day at the computer and combine it with deep-breathing exercises to help you relax,” says Yoo.
1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Reach your arms behind your back and clasp them with palms together.
2. With elbows locked, slowly lift your palms as high as you can while pulling your shoulder blades together behind you and pressing your chest forward.
3. Hold for 30 seconds and slowly lower. Repeat three to five times and perform at least twice a day.
If it’s your first time performing this stretch and your shoulder mobility is limited, it’s OK to interlace your fingers without touching your palms. Or, you can even begin with your hands on your waist, pushing your elbows backward. You can work slowly toward the full stretch.
6. Figure 4
“Decreased hip mobility can cause low back pain and limit function for everyday tasks such as getting dressed or getting in and out of the car,” says Blackstone. She recommends this yoga-inspired move to help relieve tension.
1. On an exercise mat, lie down flat on your back. Lift your legs like you’re sitting in a chair: Your knees are bent, and your shins are parallel to the floor.
2. Cross your right ankle over your left knee. Now gently pull the left knee toward you while pressing the right knee away.
3. Hold for 20-30 seconds, and then switch legs. Repeat two to three times on each side.
Modification: You can also do this stretch while sitting upright in a chair. In this case, start with your left foot flat on the ground and your right ankle resting on your left knee. Then gently press your right knee toward the ground. Try to do this three times per day to improve hip flexibility.
7. Toe-touch to ceiling
Target: Shoulders, hips, hamstrings, and calves
“This stretch targets muscles and joints that cause discomfort due to prolonged periods of sitting,” says Yoo. Here’s how to do it:
1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
2. Exhale and slowly bend at the waist to reach down to your toes. Stretch as far as possible while keeping your legs straight, but if you feel discomfort, you can bend your knees slightly. Hold at the bottom of the stretch for 10 seconds.
3. Now inhale as you stand back up and reach your arms overhead toward the ceiling. Extend your body upward and hold for a couple of more seconds. Move in a slow, controlled manner, and repeat five times.
It’s worth noting here that if you live a sedentary life, you should talk to your doctor before you begin any kind of new fitness program. Once you’re cleared, you can build these stretches into your daily routine—and soon, you’ll feel your pain begin to lift.
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