What causes limited range of motion? 20 possible conditions

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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.

Active

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.

Passive

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.

1

Dislocations

A dislocation occurs when the bones that are usually be connected at a joint separate. You can dislocate a variety of different joints in your body, including your knee, hip, ankle, or shoulder. Since a dislocatio...

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2

Fracture

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.

Read more »

3

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...

Read more »

4

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when this cartilage (which provides a cushion for bones) wears away. It can occur in any joint in the body, but most commonly affects the knees, hips, spine, and hands.

Read more »

5

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.

Read more »

6

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.

Read more »

7

Stopped Breathing

Apnea is the medical term used to describe slowed or stopped breathing. Apnea can affect people of all ages, and the cause depends on the type of apnea you have. Apnea usually occurs while you are sleeping. For thi...

Read more »

8

Rotator Cuff Injury

The rotator cuff is a common spot for injuries. The most common are tears, strains, tendinitis, and bursitis.

Read more »

9

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.

Read more »

10

Gout Overview

More than 8 million Americans suffer from gout, and incidence of the disease has increased by about half in the last 20 years. Explore our gout learning center and learn more.

Read more »

11

Muscular Dystrophies

Muscular dystrophies are a group of diseases that are passed down genetically. These diseases cause damage and weakness to muscles over time. This damage and weakness is caused by the lack of a protein calle...

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12

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...

Read more »

13

Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is painful inflammation of the elbow joint caused by repetitive stress (overuse). The pain is typically felt on the outside (lateral) part of the upper arm just above the elbo...

Read more »

14

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a bone disease, which causes an increase in size of normally small spaces inside bones, making them lose strength and density. At the same time, the outside of the bone also grows weaker and thinner.

Read more »

15

Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) is a common form of chronic arthritis in children. It is a long-term autoimmune condition characterized by stiffness and swelling in the joints. Most cases of JRA are mild, but sever...

Read more »

16

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 tightness and restricted movement. The cyst can be painful when you bend or extend you...

Read more »

17

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. In more advanced cases, th...

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18

Wry Neck (Torticollis)

Torticollis is a painfully twisted and tilted neck. The head is generally tilted to one side and the chin to the other. It is also known as wry neck. This condition can be congenital (present at birth). It can also b...

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19

Legg-Calve-Perthes' Disease

Legg-Calve-Perthes disease is a condition that affects the ball of the femur (thighbone). The ball is at the top of the femur and fits into the hip socket. In this condition, blood supply to the ball is cut off and th...

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20

Broken Hip

A broken hip is defined as a fracture in the upper portion of your thigh bone (femur). Your hip is a joint, which is a point where two or more bones come together. The top of your femur and part of your pelvic bone mee...

Read more »

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