I Have Arthritis in My Elbow and Can’t Exercise. Got Any Tips?

David Reavy
by David Reavy
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I Have Arthritis in My Elbow and Can’t Exercise. Got Any Tips?

Q: I haven’t been able to exercise, because I have pain in my elbow. My doc diagnosed arthritis—what can I do to alleviate joint pain? 

A: There are definitely steps you can take to help joint pain caused by arthritis, if it is osteoarthritis. In short, you need to release the tension from overly tight muscles and strengthen the weak muscles that stabilize the joint. But other types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, have different causes and will need different kinds of treatment.

Osteoarthritis occurs when a joint breaks down and the bones that make up that joint begin to rub together, causing inflammation and pain. You can fight inflammation in the short term by taking over the counter anti-inflammatory medication. However, this will only treat the symptom and not the cause. To really alleviate the pain, you need to get at the cause—otherwise you risk loss of function.

The key is balance. An unbalanced body leads to problems, osteoarthritis being one of them. Yes, age and genetics can play a part, but if your body isn’t balanced, I guarantee you it will show up somewhere. With osteoarthritis, an imbalance overworks the muscles surrounding the joint. Those muscles are likely compensating for another part of the body that is weak. (In the case of an elbow, a weak shoulder blade could be the root of the problem.) The tight muscles put a lot of pressure on the joint, driving the bones together, wearing down the cartilage, and eliminating the space between the bones. Think of a tire without any rubber—just a metal rim grinding on asphalt, ouch! Striving for balance and treating the cause of osteoarthritis will help you feel and move better.

Releasing the tight muscles and strengthening the weak ones will restore balance and alleviate joint pain by improving mobility, range of motion, and flexibility to the joint. Since muscle tightness also limits blood and oxygen from getting to the joint, releasing that tightness gets nutrition flowing again and starts the healing process. Manual therapy performed by a physical therapist is the best way to accomplish all of this. However, there are few things you can do at home to address joint pain on your own. Here are 4 releasing and strengthening moves that will break up tightness, restore balance to the body, and take the pressure off your elbow joint.

1. Bicep, Tricep, and Forearm Releases

  • Use your hand to feel for tight areas in your bicep and tricep.
  • Once you find a spot, hold it down as if you were trying to keep the muscle in place.
  • Move your forearm up and down, bending at your elbow, until you can feel the muscle loosen up.
  • For your forearm, again find a tight spot and hold it. Then move your wrist up and down until the muscle releases.

2. Wall Dips

  • Stand facing the wall. Place the palms of your hands against the wall with your fingers facing out horizontally and your thumbs pointing up. Keep your feet hip width apart, knees bent if needed.
  • Bring your hips back and away as you push into the wall with your palms, dropping your chest toward the floor with your shoulders down.
  • Repeat. Do three sets of 10 or 15 reps.

3. Ball Over Heads

  • Lie on the floor on your back with a flat back. Bend your knees to 90 degrees, keeping your feet flat on the ground.
  • While holding medicine ball, raise arms straight with locked elbows towards the ceiling until the ball is directly over chest.
  • Punch up towards ceiling by bringing your shoulders up off the ground and hold.
  • Bring your arms over your head as far as you can, and then slowly bring the ball back down toward your knees.
  • Repeat. Do three sets of 10 or 15 reps.

4. Kneeling Bow and Arrow

  • Kneel with your knees on a soft surface.
  • Reach both arms out in front of you, making fists with your palms facing together.
  • While squeezing your glutes and abs, pull one arm back to get a good squeeze behind your shoulder blade. Keep your shoulders down—don’t let them creep up to your ears.
  • Repeat. Do three sets of 10 or 15 reps on each side.

Got a question for David Reavy? Ask in the comments and you might see your question answered in a future blog post!

About the Author

David Reavy
David Reavy

React_logoDavid Reavy is the founder and CEO of React Physical Therapy and creator of the Reavy Method. David’s own experiences with the limitations of traditional physical therapy inspired him to develop the Reavy Method, now recognized by the Illinois Physical Therapy Association as a continuing education course for physical therapists. The Reavy Method creates strength through balance using dynamic assessment, muscle release, and muscle activation. By balancing the body, the Reavy Method not only brings patients back to their previous level of function but also helps them become stronger than ever. David is a board certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy with credentials from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Past and current clients include Matt Forte, Tracy McGrady, and the many clients that come through React Physical Therapy in Chicago, IL every day. Follow React Physical Therapy on Twitter and Facebook.

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10 responses to “I Have Arthritis in My Elbow and Can’t Exercise. Got Any Tips?”

  1. Avatar Dianne Cooper says:

    I have an atrophied infraspinatus muscle due to 2 rotator cuff surgeries. What can I do to strengthen that area of my arm? I also have a torn bicep muscle, so arm exercises are difficult.

  2. Avatar Shillings Harris says:

    I have arthritic in my knees due to my kneecaps not being exactly where they should be and so they bone grinds. very painful at times. running and anything the puts stain or pressure on them is out. so what kind of exercise can i do? im 360 lbs, female and needing to lose a good bit of weight. suggestions would be great!

    • Avatar Cindy says:

      I have the same problem, , started riding a bicycle, , there is not much pressure on your knees, since you’re sitting, start slow then each time increase your distance, I can’t walk a block, lol, but I have my longest ride at 75 miles!!started at 3 miles, , hope this helps!!:)

    • Avatar Cindy says:

      I have the same problem, , started riding a bicycle, , there is not much pressure on your knees, since you’re sitting, start slow then each time increase your distance, I can’t walk a block, lol, but I have my longest ride at 75 miles!!started at 3 miles, , hope this helps!!:)

    • Avatar Jq says:

      Swimming is good form of exercise as u r lighter in water. I am a wheelchair user with fibromyalgia and both forms of arthritis. Swimming helps strength and all over exercise while supported in water. Also helps burn extra cals I’m now strong enough to use a manual chair. It’s also good fun
      Good luck

  3. Avatar Christine Hubbard says:

    I have back pain, which is now moving down my right leg towards the knee. It can be quite painful. Finding pain killers not doing much to elevate the pain though

  4. Avatar Becky W says:

    I have osteoarthritis in my hands & wrists. Is there any type support gloves you can wear while using resistance machines at the gym to ease the pain?

  5. Avatar Becky W says:

    I have osteoarthritis in my hands & wrists. Is there any type support gloves you can wear while using resistance machines at the gym to ease the pain?

  6. Avatar tsg66 says:

    I have plantar fasciitis and ankle pain. I don’t wear orthotics because I never found any which felt good (even custom made). Knee pain as well…ugh 🙁 Continue to work out, just have pain every morning!

  7. Avatar Joy says:

    I have pain in ny hands at base of thumb I love working out and want to continue. By doing bicep curls will this make it worse. I know I have to keep my hand straight when lifting any weights. Should I lift barbels or should I eliminate this exercise? Thanks Joy

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