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

A person wearing a blue sleeveless shirt is holding their right elbow with their left hand, possibly due to arthritis in the elbow. The image focuses on the arm and hands, with no other background details visible. MyFitnessPal Blog
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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!

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