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 doctors
consider normal for various joints in the body. For example, the Merck
Manual notes that the knee should ideally be able to flex, or bend, to an
angle of 130 degrees. It should also be able to extend so that it’s completely
A reduction in a 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 with a number of conditions. Certain exercises may be helpful for
improving and maintaining flexibility in the joints.
Causes a Limited Range of Motion in the Joints?
Medical conditions associated with a limited range of motion
in the joints include:
- ankylosing spondylitis, which is a type of
arthritis that primarily affects the spine
- osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of
arthritis related to older age and wear and tear of the joints
- rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune form of
arthritis caused by your immune system attacking your joints
- juvenile RA, which is an autoimmune form of
arthritis that occurs in children under the age of 16 years
palsy, which is a group of neurological disorders that causes muscle paralysis
and loss of body control.
- Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which is a
disorder that causes the thighbone to die due to lack of blood flow to the
- sepsis of the hip and other joints, which is
a bacterial infection of the joints
- a congenital form of torticollis, which is a
stiff neck associated with muscle spasms
- syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted
Other causes of restricted range of motion include:
- inflammation of the soft tissues surrounding the
joint, or joint swelling
- muscle stiffness
- joint dislocation
- elbow fractures
- fractures in other areas of the body
Should I See My Doctor?
See your doctor about any reductions in the normal range of
motion of your joints. You should also go to your doctor if you can’t fully
straighten or bend one or more joints or if you’re having difficulty moving a certain
People aren’t always aware of their own limited range of
motion. You may see a doctor for an unrelated reason and discover that you’re
also experiencing a lack of mobility in one or more of your joints.
Is Limited Range of Motion Diagnosed?
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, or nervous system. As a follow-up, your doctor may schedule some tests,
such as X-rays of the spine and joints.
Your doctor may recommend a course of physical therapy
designed to enhance range of motion.
Are the Complications Associated with a Limited Range of Motion?
In some cases, the position of the joint may become
permanently fixed. This means you’ll no longer be able to move the joint past a
given point. These are known as contracture deformities. Conditions associated
with this complication include:
- cerebral palsy
- muscular dystrophy, which is an inherited
disease involving muscle weakness
- Dupuytren’s contracture, which is a thickening
of the tissue layer beneath the skin in the hands and wrist
- Volkmann’s contracture, which is a lack of blood
flow to the forearm causing the muscles in the arm to shorten
Can I Prevent Limited Range of Motion?
Range of motion exercises specifically target joint
flexibility. You can do range of motion exercises with a physical therapist. Your
doctor or physical therapist can also tell you about exercises that you can
easily do at home. These can help you maintain or improve joint flexibility,
which helps with overall freedom and ease of movement.
There are three general categories of range of motion
exercises are active, active assistive, and passive.
You can do active exercises without the assistance of
Active assistive exercises rely on your effort and the
effort of another person. This other person is often a physical therapist. These
exercises are helpful when it’s painful to flex or extend the joint.
Passive exercises rely completely on the effort of the
physical therapist or another individual. If you have limited range of motion,
you don’t need to do anything. These are typical when the person receiving treatment
isn’t physically able to perform the movements that are part of the range of
Practicing range of motion exercises can greatly increase
your flexibility and ease of movement. However, always speak with your doctor
before attempting to perform a range of motion exercise for the first time.
Maintaining proper alignment and form are necessary to make sure you don’t