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Range of Motion: What it is, Why it matters and How to increase it

What Does “Range of Motion” Mean?

Your range of motion (ROM) is how far a joint can flex and extend in any direction. The flexibility of soft tissues around the joint affects your ROM. Flexibility is the ability of muscles, tendons, and connective tissue to lengthen as the joint flexes and extends.

Joint and muscle flexibility naturally decline as we age, but injury, disease, surgery, or inactivity may also contribute to impaired ROM. Poor range of motion can limit your ability to perform even simple activities of daily living.

Even though the range of motion varies for each individual, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joint range of motion study helped establish reference values for the normal range of motion of the body’s five main joints: elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle. The study authors concluded if your range of motion is below the “established norm,” your ROM has some degree of impairment.

Passive vs. Active Range of Motion

Range of motion may be active, passive, or active-assistive.

Active range of motion (AROM) – you actively use your muscles to move a body part, contracting and relaxing muscles without assistance. You use an active range of motion as you move independently throughout daily activities.

Active-assistive range of motion (AAROM) – if you are recovering from surgery or an injury, your physical therapist or a machine may assist you as you move the recovering body part to protect it as you heal. AAROM helps improve strength and flexibility in the injured area.

Passive range of motion (PROM) – you rely solely on an outside force, like a physical therapist or continuous passive motion (CPM) machine, to move your joint through its available range of motion. PROM helps prevent contractures or muscle spasticity by gently stretching joints and muscles. If you are recovering from injury or surgery and cannot move limbs or joints on your own, you may benefit from PROM.

Why Does Your Range of Motion Matter?

If your range of motion is limited, the functional mobility of your body is also limited. Optimum mobility requires joints and supporting ligaments, tendons, and muscles to move comfortably within a healthy range of motion.

Muscle imbalance, poor posture, and improper body alignment reduce mobility and are often the underlying source of pain. A limited range of motion places undue stress on other joints and muscles, increasing the risk of injury. When your range of motion is restricted, your body cannot operate efficiently, diminishing your independence and quality of life.

A healthy range of motion helps you:

  • Prevent or reduce pain
  • Reduce your risk of injury
  • Maintain or improve strength and balance
  • Maintain joint flexibility
  • Maintain functional abilities like reaching overhead or climbing stairs
  • Enjoy optimum mobility

A restricted range of motion can reduce your independence and quality of life, which may contribute to mental health issues, including depression.

Studies Find Physical Therapy Effectively Improves Range of Motion

Physical therapists (PTs) specialize in treating movement and mobility dysfunction. Multiple studies agree that a well-designed ROM exercise program, supervised by a physical therapist, can significantly improve range of motion.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology concluded that women who participated in a physical therapy-led exercise program after lymph node surgery regained full ROM much more quickly than those who did not. Study authors encourage PT soon after surgery to recover faster and maintain physical functioning.

Another study, published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, found recovering stroke patients who participated in a four-week range of motion exercise program experienced significant improvements over those who did not exercise, including:

  • Increased range of motion
  • Improved function in upper extremities
  • Less edema of upper extremities
  • Better able to perform activities of daily living

Other research supports the benefits of physical therapy to improve or regain range of motion in compromised joints.

How PT Can Help Increase Your Range of Motion

During your first physical therapy visit, your therapist will conduct various assessments to determine your baseline. Besides discussing your medical history, your PT will want to know how your limited ROM affects your life and your goals for physical therapy. Your physical therapist will also conduct a physical exam which includes the use of an instrument called a goniometer to measure your active, passive, and active-assistive range of motion. Periodically, as your clinical sessions continue, your PT will take new measurements to track improvements in your ROM.

Depending on your specific needs, your physical therapist decides if passive, active, or active-assisted exercise is best. If you are struggling with chronic pain or recovering from an injury or surgery, your therapist may opt to begin with passive range of motion or active-assistive range of motion exercises, or a combination. As your pain decreases and you become stronger and more flexible, you may move on to active range of motion exercises.

Passive range of motion exercises help:

  • Reduce muscle stiffness and spasticity
  • Improve joint mobility
  • Prevent or reduce contracture
  • Improve blood flow to the affected area
  • Improve sensory stimulation between the injured area and the brain

If you can contract and relax muscles without help as you perform a movement, active range of motion exercises provide significant benefits, including strengthening signals between the brain and the muscles.

Active range of motion exercises help:

  • Strengthen muscles as you actively move
  • Increase flexibility of joints, muscles, and supportive tissue
  • Reduce pain or numbness
  • Prevent muscle atrophy or contractures
  • Produce more synovial fluid, keeping tendons flexible and cartilage healthy
  • Reinforce neural connections
  • Lift mood, and improve general fitness and overall function

Athletic Physical Therapy

The expert team at Athletic Physical Therapy addresses range of motion concerns with virtually every client we see. We recognize that a healthy range of motion is invaluable in living your best life, no matter your age or your choice of activities.

Our proprietary program, the ARC Progression is based on scientific healing times to fully rehabilitate all orthopedic conditions, including an impaired range of motion, in the shortest period.

We not only promise to help you regain your optimum range of motion, but we also pledge to improve every facet of your health.

Contact APT to learn how we can help.