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What causes limited range of motion? 20 possible conditions

Limited Range of Motion

Joint range of motion refers to both the distance a joint can move and the direction in which it can move. There are established ranges that are considered normal for various joints in the body. For example, according to The Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals, the knee should ideally be able to flex (bend) to an angle of 130 degrees. It should be able to be extended so that it is completely straight (Merck & Co., Inc., 2009).

A reduction in normal range of motion in any of the joints is known as limited range of motion. Joint range of motion naturally declines as you age, but it can also occur along with a number of conditions. Certain exercises may be helpful in improving and maintaining flexibility in the joints.

What Conditions Can Cause Limited Range of Motion in the Joints?

Medical Conditions

Medical conditions associated with limited range of motion in the joints include:

  • ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that primarily affects the spine
  • osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis related to older age and wear-and-tear to the joints
  • rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune form of arthritis caused by your immune system attacking your joints
  • juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune form of arthritis that occurs in children under the age of 16 years
  • cerebral palsy, a group of neurological disorders that causes muscle paralysis and loss of body control
  • the congenital form of torticollis, a stiff neck associated with muscle spasms
  • Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a disorder that causes the thighbone to die because of lack of blood flow to the joint
  • septic hip (and other septic joints), a bacterial infection of the joints
  • syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

Other Causes

It is not only medical conditions that can restrict range of motion. The following may also lead to reduced flexibility in one or more joints:

  • inflammation of the soft tissues surrounding the joint (joint swelling)
  • muscle stiffness
  • pain
  • joint dislocation
  • elbow fractures or fractures in other areas of the body

When to See Your Doctor About Restricted Joint

When to Make an Appointment

See your doctor about any reductions in the normal range of motion of your joints. Make an appointment if you cannot fully straighten or bend one or more joints, or find you are experiencing difficulty moving certain joint(s).

Something to note is that people aren’t always aware of their own limited range of motion. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it may be identified during a visit for another condition or symptom (NIH, 2010).

The Appointment: What Will Likely Happen?

Your initial appointment will likely consist of a physical examination. This will include an assessment of the affected joints. Your doctor may ask questions about your limited range of motion, such as:

  • When did the problem first start?
  • Are you experiencing discomfort?
  • Where is it occurring?
  • Are you having any other symptoms?

Your doctor may also assess the function of your bones, muscles, and/or nervous system.

As a follow-up, tests may also be scheduled. Two commonly ordered tests are X-rays of the spine and joints.

Your doctor may recommend a course of physical therapy designed to enhance range of motion.

What Are the Potential Consequences of Limited Range of Motion?

In some cases, the position of the joint may become permanently fixed. This means you will no longer be able to move the joint past a given point. These are known as contracture deformities. According to the NIH, conditions associated with this complication include:

  • cerebral palsy
  • muscular dystrophy, an inherited disease involving muscle weakness
  • Dupuytren’s contracture, a thickening of the tissue layer beneath the skin in the hands and wrist
  • Volkmann’s contracture, a lack of blood flow to the forearm causes the muscles in the arm to shorten

How Can Optimal Range of Motion in the Joints Be Maintained?

Range of motion exercises are designed specifically to enhance joint flexibility. Range of motion exercises may be done as part of formal sessions with a physical therapist. However, your doctor or physical therapist may also tell you about exercises that you can easily do at home. These can help you maintain or improve joint flexibility, which is associated with overall freedom and ease of movement.

They can be divided into three general categories: active, active assistive, and passive.


These exercises are done without the assistance of another person.

Active Assistive

These exercises rely on the combined effort of the individual and another person (often a physical therapist). They are often used when it is painful for the individual to flex or extend the joint.


These rely completely on the effort of the physical therapist or another individual. The person with limited range of motion does not need to do anything. These are typically used because the person being treated is not physically able to perform the movements that are part of the range of motion exercise(s).

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.



Since a dislocation means your bone is no longer where it should be, you should treat it as an emergency and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A fracture is a broken bone that typically occurs when a bone is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin.

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Joint Swelling

Joints are the structures that connect two or more bones in your body. They are found in the hips, the knees, the hands, and many other parts of the body. Joints are surrounded and cushioned by soft tissues. Swellin...

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, causes inflammation of the joints in the body. Explore our doctor-reviewed health articles and learn more about osteoarthritis.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovia, the membranes lining the joints.

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Stroke Overview

A stroke (a "brain attack") is a medical emergency in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This occurs when an artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and brain cells begin to die.

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Stopped Breathing

Apnea is slowed or stopped breathing that usually occurs during sleep. Bruises can result from the mask worn to aid in breathing, called CPAP.

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Rotator Cuff Injury

The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles and tendons that help stabilize the shoulder and aid in movement. Rotator cuff strains or tears are caused by overuse or acute injury. Repetitive lifting can put you at risk.

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Rotator Cuff Tendinitis

Rotator cuff tendinitis affects the tendons and muscles that help move the shoulder joint. Tendinitis means that these tendons are inflamed or irritated. Symptoms of this condition usually worsen over time.

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Gout Overview

Gout is a type of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the blood. When the concentration of uric acid gets too high, sharp urate crystals form and collect in the joints, causing swelling and intense pain.

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Muscular Dystrophies

Muscular dystrophies are a group of inherited diseases that damage and weaken your muscles over time. This damage and weakness is due to the lack of a protein.

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Axillary Nerve Dysfunction

Axillary nerve dysfunction (AND) or injury is also called neuropathy of the axillary nerve. It describes a loss of movement or lack of sensation in the shoulder area of the body. Stress or damage to the axillary nerve...

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Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow often occurs when a specific muscle in the forearm, the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle, is damaged. The ECRB helps raise the wrist.

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Osteoporosis is a bone disease due to calcium loss. As a result the bones lose strength and density. People are usually unaware that they have the condition until they experience a fracture.

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Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is a form of chronic arthritis that affects children. It is a long-term autoimmune condition characterized by stiffness and swelling in the joints. Most cases of JRA are mild.

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Baker's (Popliteal) Cyst

A popliteal cyst, also known as a Baker's cyst, is a fluid-filled swelling that causes a lump at the back of the knee, leading to restricted movement.

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Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that primarily affects your spine. It causes severe inflammation of the vertebrae that might eventually lead to chronic pain and disability.

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Wry Neck (Torticollis)

Wry neck (Torticollis) is a tilted and twisted neck that can be congenital or result from muscle injury, swollen lymph nodes, ear infection, or other causes.

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Legg-Calve-Perthes' Disease

Juvenile osteochondrosis affecting the head of the femur is also known as Legg-Calve-Perthes disease. In this condition, blood supply to the ball of the femur is cut off and the bone dies. It primarily affects youn...

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Broken Hip

A broken hip is a serious condition at any age. It almost always requires surgery. Complications associated with a broken hip can be life-threatening.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.