Stretching and Range of Motion Exercises

Exercises that extend range of motion and improve flexibility should be part of the exercise routine for everyone with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). These exercises focus on improving and maintaining your ability to move joints to their fullest extent.

How does stretching help?

Flexibility exercises also help to maintain the elasticity of muscles, as well as tendons and ligaments, making them less likely to become strained and injured. Stretching and range of motion exercises are especially important for individuals with RA whose mobility may become limited due to voluntary and involuntary restriction of joint movement.1

With restricted movement due to stiffness or joint pain, a vicious cycle can begin. Less motion can lead to muscle loss or atrophy, leading to joint deterioration, followed by further muscle loss. This downward spiral can be difficult to reverse, and exercises like stretching are important to maintain function in the joints.

Research on stretching and RA

Stretching has proven benefits in people with RA. In one study that evaluated an exercise and stretching program for the hands and wrists found that exercising the hands and wrists is effective, safe, and cost-effective.2 Similarly, stretching and exercising other parts of the body can help other joints.

An everyday stretching routine

Since stretching is a relatively quiet form of exercise that doesn’t typically involve heavy breathing or sweating, you may be tempted to skip simple stretches as a part of your everyday exercise routine. However, it is crucial to include them as part of your daily routine.

Suggestions for stretching different body parts

Many types of stretches can lengthen your muscles and take your joints through their full range of motion.  Exercises such as yoga are designed to gently stretch different parts of your body.3

Here are some simple stretches for different muscles and joints throughout your body. Your doctor, nurse, or physical therapist will be able to give you many more stretching exercises to address your specific needs.

Hand and wrist

Try this exercise to both stretch and strengthen your wrists and fingers.

  1. Start by making a fist with your hand, then in one quick movement extend all fingers at once out straight, with your fingers spread.
  2. Retract your fingers into a fist again.
  3. Repeat this 5 times with each hand.

Shoulder and upper back

This exercise can be used to stretch and strengthen the muscles of your upper back and shoulders.

  1. Start by getting on your hands and knees on your exercise mat, with your face looking down directly on the mat (keep your head and neck parallel to the mat). If you have problems with your knees, you may place a folded towel or blanket below your knees for extra cushion.
  2. Gradually and slowly reach your right arm out in front, keeping your arm parallel to the floor and at the approximate level of your ear. Point your fingers straight out.
  3. Maintain this position for a count of 5 and then return your arm slowly back down so that your hand is back on the mat.
  4. Repeat this 10 times for each arm (of course, you can do less to start, with the goal of working up to 10).

Side of your body

This stretching exercise focuses on the back muscles on the sides of your torso and is useful if you are tight or stiff in this area and subject to spasms when you twist the wrong way.

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Do not lock your knees. Stand relaxed and upright.
  2. Place your right hand on your waist, above your hip, with your thumb toward the back and index finger towards the front.
  3. Reach your left arm above your head, with your palm facing the right. Try to keep your shoulders level.
  4. Begin to bend sideways to the right, bending from the waist. Allow your right hand to slide gently down the outside of your thigh. Move in one plane while your left arm reaches over your head and shoulders.
  5. You should feel a gentle stretch in your torso and down your left side. Remember to breathe and hold the stretch for a count to 5.
  6. Move slowly as you return to the original upright position. Allow your left arm to drift down to your side.
  7. Reverse the exercise for the other side of your body.


Use this stretch to lengthen and loosen your hamstrings (the muscle on the back of your thigh) while stretching your lower back.

  1. Start by lying on your back on your exercise mat, keeping your arms down at your sides. Flex your knees (only partially) and place your feet flat on the mat. You may place a rolled blanket under your knees if that makes you feel more comfortable.
  2. Slowly bend your right knee and lift it toward your torso until you can reach and clasp your hands behind your hamstring. If you have difficulty reaching, you may use a folded towel or yoga strap to reach around your upper leg.
  3. Extend your leg, keeping your foot pointed toward the ceiling. Try to straighten your leg. If you can’t straighten it, loosen your grip on your thigh and don’t pull it so close to your chest.
  4. Once you’re able to straighten your leg, hold for a count of 5.
  5. Slowly and gradually, lower your right leg and foot back down to the mat.
  6. Repeat the exercise with your left leg.

Check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.

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Written by: Jonathan Simmons and Emily Downward | Last reviewed: March 2022