Range-of-Motion Exercises

Range-of-motion exercises are prescribed to improve joint function after an injury or surgical procedure, or as ongoing treatment for chronic osteoarthritis or other disease. Their goal is to keep a patient flexible by gently increasing the range of joint and muscle movement, and decreasing pain, swelling and stiffness.

Frequently, keeping a joint bent provides relief from pain. Doing so is counterproductive, however, because it lessens joint mobility. Range-of-motion exercises, whether guided by physical therapists or performed by patients themselves, gradually stretch and strengthen muscles, increasing joint flexibility without causing injury. Which exercises are appropriate is determined by the part of the body that needs work.

Types of Range-of-Motion Exercises

Range-of-motion exercises involve progressive stretches to achieve mobility within the normal range, or as close to the normal range as is possible. It is very important that these exercises be increased incrementally, so that pain does not interfere with progress. There are are three common types of range-of-motion exercises.

Passive Range-of-Motion Exercises

Passive range-of-motion exercises are performed as the patient's joint is moved by an assistive device or therapist. These exercises may be indicated for patients with congenital or degenerative disorders, or major injuries, in order to maintain joint flexibility.

Active-Assistive Range-of-Motion Exercises

During active assistive range-of-motion exercises, the patient moves the joints and muscles with the help of the therapist. The therapist supports the distal joint (the part of the joint farthest from the point of attachment), while the patient moves as much as possible in the instructed manner.

Active Range-of-Motion Exercises

Active range-of-motion exercises are performed solely by the patient, who moves the joint without any assistance. Although these exercises may not be possible at the start physical therapy, the goal of treatment is to enable the patient to exercise independently. Active range-of-motion exercises are resistive or isometric. During resistive exercise, the patient pushes or pulls against an opposing, resistant force. During isometric exercises, the patient contracts and relaxes muscles, while keeping the joint in a fixed position.

All range-of-motion exercises are designed to strengthen muscles and joints as a means of increasing mobility and avoiding reinjury. They are an important part of a physical therapy program, and are structured to help patients return to normal activities as quickly and safely as possible.

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