• Performing certain exercises can help you manage spasticity after a stroke.
  • Stretching and moving may also help you avoid some long-term effects of spasticity, such as contracture.

A stroke can lead to spasticity when it disrupts areas of your brain that control that natural tension of a muscle (also called muscle tone).

Spasticity affects up to 43 percent of people who’ve survived a stroke within a year of the event. The condition makes muscles stiff and tight.

Exercises for spasticity help enhance neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to create new pathways to perform functions (like managing muscle tone), says Dustin Hines, PhD, a neuroscientist and an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

Stretching and moving can also help you avoid some long-term effects of spasticity, such as contracture. That’s when the affected muscles “become fixed in a particular position,” says Jing Nong Liang, PT, PhD, an assistant professor of physical therapy at UNLV.

Want to learn more about the best exercises for spasticity after a stroke? Here are eight moves you can try at home. You can also connect with a physical therapist for personalized movement recommendations.

One of the best exercises for spasticity involves shifting your weight as often as you can while sitting, says Hines.

This is particularly helpful for people who experienced a moderate or severe stroke, which can reduce their ability to balance in a seated position.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit in a chair with your back straight.
  2. Slowly shift your weight to one side.
  3. Hold for several seconds.
  4. Move your weight back to center.
  5. Slowly shift your weight to the opposite side.
  6. Hold for several seconds.
  7. Return to center and repeat 6 to 10 times on each side.

Strengthening the muscles that stabilize your shoulders is critical for supporting smaller muscles and joints in the upper limbs. This shoulder blade protraction exercise may be able to ease stiffness from spasticity in your arms and hands.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit in a chair and extend your arms forward at shoulder height (if you can).
  2. Clasp your hands together and bend your neck slightly forward.
  3. When you feel a gentle stretch, hold the position for a few seconds.
  4. Release the position, put your arms down, and relax for several seconds.
  5. Repeat 6 to 10 times.

Hand exercises can help reduce stiffness from spasticity in the fingers. They can also build strength and dexterity, so you can hold and let go of objects. For this exercise, you’ll need a small therapeutic ball (such as a stress ball).

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Using your affected hand, hold the ball in your palm.
  2. Wrap your fingers over the ball and squeeze it.
  3. Hold the squeeze for a few seconds, then release.
  4. Repeat up to 20 times in a row, or do 2 sets of 10 reps.

Keep the ball you used in the squeeze exercise handy — you’ll need it for this move. This ball pinch exercise can help reduce stiffness in your fingers and improve your ability to grip objects.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick up the ball with your affected hand and hold it between your thumb, index, and middle fingers.
  2. Gently squeeze the ball using the tips of those fingers.
  3. Hold the squeeze for several seconds, then relax.
  4. Repeat up to 20 times in a row, or do 2 sets of 10 reps.

This exercise for spasticity can help build strength in your wrist and improve your fine motor skills. Sharpening this ability helps you to do many daily tasks, like brushing your teeth, holding a pen, and using scissors.

For this exercise, you’ll need a filled water bottle, a chair, and a table or counter.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit in a chair near a table or counter.
  2. Place the elbow that connects to your affected hand on the surface of the table or counter, then extend your forearm forward.
  3. Place the water bottle in your affected hand.
  4. Support your affected hand by gripping your wrist with the opposite hand.
  5. Use your wrist to curl the water bottle up slowly, then extend it back down.
  6. Repeat 4 to 5 times.

This exercise can help boost your ability to reach for objects in front of you. It can also help build strength in your shoulder, elbow, and wrist.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a chair in front of a table.
  2. Rest your affected arm on the table, straight out in front of you.
  3. Extend your arm, elbow, hand, and fingers forward as if you were reaching for an object.
  4. Make a fist at the farthest point of your reach, then bring it back in.
  5. Repeat up to 20 times.

This exercise is helpful if spasticity has weakened or stiffened your hip muscles. It can help you prepare to walk and roll over in bed more easily.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lie on your side on the floor, with your unaffected side down.
  2. Make sure your hips are stacked directly on top of one another.
  3. Bend the knee of your top leg and move it toward your face until it’s at a slight angle above your hip. You can rest your knee on the floor.
  4. Straighten your leg back out and place it back on top of the other leg.
  5. Repeat 15 to 20 times.

Be sure to keep your bottom leg straight the entire time you perform this exercise.

Stiff knees can affect your ability to control your balance and walk safely, increasing your chances for fall-related injuries, says Liang. Knee extensions can help, though.

This is an advanced move, so you may find it challenging at first. If you experience any pain, stop performing this exercise and talk with a healthcare professional.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sit up straight in a chair with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
  2. Extend your left foot up and forward, almost as if you were gently kicking a ball in front of you.
  3. Even though you’re working toward a straight leg, keep your knee soft and don’t lock the joint.
  4. Slowly move your foot back to the floor.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side and repeat 4 to 5 times per leg.

Spasticity from a stroke can cause muscle stiffness, spasms, and pain. That, in turn, can make it difficult to perform simple daily tasks and participate in your favorite activities.

Fortunately, post-stroke exercises can help you regain your range of motion and strength. The above exercises, as well as others recommended by a physical therapist, can:

  • build strength
  • improve your mobility
  • maintain your independence

Talk with your healthcare team about the best ways to manage spasticity after a stroke. They may recommend a personalized physical therapy plan, as well as medications that can ease pain and reduce stiffness.