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Joint Pain: Top 3 Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis


Posted by Dr. Scott Wilson | 01-Nov-2023

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects millions of people worldwide and one of the most common symptoms is joint pain. If you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis, you know this pain can greatly impact your quality of life. For some, it can even be debilitating. Fortunately, physical therapy has proven effective at managing joint pain for many RA patients. In this article, we’ll look at the importance of physical therapy for managing rheumatoid arthritis and we’ll review the top 3 exercises for RA suffers, including range of motion exercises, strengthening exercises, and aerobic/low-impact exercises. These exercises can help alleviate your joint pain and improve your overall mobility. We’ll also look at the importance of proper form and consistency to ensure you get the maximum benefit.

Understanding Joint Pain in Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease that causes your body’s immune system to attack your joints, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. The result is inflammation, swelling, mild to severe pain, and even the destruction of joints, typically in the hands and feet. The pain can range from mild discomfort to severe joint pain, affecting daily living. RA related pain can be triggered by physical activity, cold weather, or joint overuse. It may also worsen with increased joint damage, swelling, joint inflammation, or other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis (OA). Identifying the cause of the pain is essential for effective pain management and early treatment is crucial for preventing disability and improving or maintaining your quality of life.

Physical Therapy and Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in managing rheumatoid arthritis pain and improving joint function. It focuses on reducing joint inflammation, improving joint stability, and enhancing joint mobility through various treatment options, such as exercises, massage, cold therapy, and heating pads. In some cases, warm bath therapy can also help. Pain relief is found by strengthening the supporting muscles around the affected joints and by using joint mobilization techniques, which also restores range of motion. Working with a physiotherapist ensures you have an individualized treatment plan based on the particulars of your condition and needs.

Range of Motion Exercises: Unlocking Joint Flexibility

Range of motion exercises are the foundation of maintaining joint flexibility and preventing the morning stiffness that often plagues rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Regularly performing these exercises help keep your joints supple, ensuring you can continue your daily activities with less discomfort.

  1. Wrist Circles: Wrist circles are a simple yet effective exercise for strengthening and improving flexibility in your wrists. They can be done while sitting or standing. Begin by holding your hands out in front of you. Gently rotate your wrists in a circular motion. Complete ten circles clockwise and ten counterclockwise. This exercise is essential for maintaining mobility in your wrists, which are often affected by RA. To make wrist circles more challenging, you can add weights or use a resistance band.
  2. Ankle Circles: Ankle circles are gentle exercises that can help improve range of motion and flexibility in your ankle joints. These exercises can be done while sitting or lying down, making them accessible for individuals with limited mobility. Start by holding your feet in the air and gently rotate your ankles in a circular motion. Aim for ten circles clockwise and ten counterclockwise. Ankle circles can be particularly helpful in addressing foot and ankle pain associated with RA.
  3. Knee Flexion/Extension: Knee flexion and extension exercises are effective in reducing joint stiffness and improving range of motion. These exercises involve bending and straightening the knee joint while sitting or lying down. To begin, slowly bend your affected knee as far as you comfortably can, then straighten it out. This exercise promotes knee flexibility and is particularly useful for those dealing with RA-related knee pain. You can choose to do knee flexion and extension with or without resistance bands or weights depending on the level of resistance required.

Strengthening Exercises: Building Muscular Support

Strengthening exercises play a crucial role in the management of rheumatoid arthritis. RA can weaken the muscles around your joints, leading to instability, pain, and reduced mobility. Strengthening exercises target specific muscle groups to improve joint stability and reduce pain. By building muscle, you provide additional support to your joints, reducing pain and enhancing your overall stability.

  1. Leg Raises: Leg raises specifically targeting the hip and thigh muscles. By strengthening these muscles, leg raises can help reduce strain on the joints. To perform leg raises, lie on your back and raise one leg to a 45-degree angle. Hold for a few seconds before lowering your leg back down and repeating the motion. For added difficulty and muscle building, ankle weights or resistance bands can be used. Start with 10 reps per leg and gradually increase as your strength improves.
  2. Resistance Bands: Resistance bands offer a low-impact, joint-friendly resistance training option to help strengthen muscles surrounding painful joints. Different colors indicate the varying levels of resistance, so it’s easy to choose the right band for your needs. to work on strengthening your upper body. You can perform exercises such as arm curls, shoulder presses, or chest presses. These exercises target the muscles supporting the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
  3. Pelvic Tilts: Pelvic tilts are a gentle exercise that can strengthen your core and alleviate pain by improving flexibility and posture, and by minimizing joint strain. These easy-to-do exercises require no equipment and can be modified to suit any fitness level or physical limitations. While lying on your back with your knees bent, gently lift your pelvis off the ground and hold for a few seconds, then lower it back down. Aim for three sets of ten tilts. Incorporating pelvic tilts into a regular routine enhances joint health and mobility.

Aerobic and Low-Impact Exercises: Enhancing Your Endurance

Aerobic exercises are beneficial for managing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms by improving cardiovascular health, endurance, and aiding in weight loss. However, while high-impact exercises may not be suitable for individuals with RA, low-impact aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, or water aerobics provide cardiovascular benefits without causing excessive strain on your joints.

  1. Swimming: Swimming is an excellent low-impact aerobic, full-body exercise that can enhance endurance and joint flexibility. It also reduces pain an inflammation. The buoyancy of the water significantly reduces the impact on your joints while also providing the necessary resistance for building muscle strength.
  2. Water Aerobics: As with swimming, water aerobics provides a low-impact workout that can help reduce rheumatoid arthritis related joint pain and stiffness. The buoyancy of water minimizes the impact on joints, creating a more comfortable exercise experience. Because it improves cardiovascular health and strengthens muscles, it’s an effective alternative for non-swimmers or those looking for a more social option.
  3. Stationary Biking: Riding a stationary bike is a low-impact exercise that aids in reducing joint pain and stiffness. It improves mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles and in addition to alleviating pain, it also enhances your cardiovascular health and endurance. You can adjust the resistance level on your bike to match your comfort and ability.

Maximizing Impact with Proper Form and Consistency

No matter which exercises you’re performing, it’s crucial to focus on proper form and to be consistent in order to avoid injury and achieve the optimal impact. Proper form, including alignment and technique, ensures that the joints and muscles you’re targeting are being effectively engaged. It also helps to avoid injury from hyper-extending, overloading or overstraining your joints. As for consistency, this is the key to experiencing the benefits of exercise. Incorporate these exercises into your daily routine, or as frequently as advised by physiotherapist, and you’ll be more likely to see improvements in your joint mobility, pain levels, and overall physical and even emotional well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions About Exercise and Rheumatoid Arthritis:

Q1. Are there any risks or precautions to consider when beginning a physical therapy routine for joint pain?

Because each person’s condition and capabilities vary, it’s important that you consult with a healthcare professional before starting a physical therapy routine for RA related joint pain. Certain exercises may not be suitable for your particular situation and it’s important proceed with a plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. Work with an experienced physiotherapist who understands RA and be sure to communicate openly about any pain during exercises. It’s also important to set realistic goals and to progress gradually. Consistency is essential, but remember to allow time to rest and recover.

Q2. How frequently should I perform these physical therapy exercises to see results?

Frequency depends on the particulars of your condition and the recommendations of your physiotherapist. Typically, performing exercises 2 to 3 times per week is a good starting point. As you progress, you may increase the frequency. However, it’s crucial to listen to your body and not overexert yourself. Consistency is key, so try to stick to a regular routine and adjust based on your progress and comfort.

Q3. What other treatments or therapies can be used in conjunction with physical therapy to manage rheumatoid arthritis?

In addition to physical therapy, other treatments and therapies can be used to manage your rheumatoid arthritis. Dietary changes, hot and cold therapies, acupuncture, massage, and occupational therapy accommodations can also have positive impacts. Lifestyle changes such as increasing activity levels, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding activities that worsen joint pain can also be beneficial. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help to alleviate pain as can hyaluronic acid injections. Of course, working with a healthcare professional to determine the best combination of treatments for managing your rheumatoid arthritis is always recommended.


Rheumatoid arthritis can be a very disruptive and debilitating condition. However, physical therapy exercises can play a crucial role in managing your condition and improving your quality of life. Range of motion exercises help improve joint flexibility, while strengthening exercises build muscular support around the joints. Aerobic and low-impact exercises enhance endurance and overall fitness. As with all exercise programs, proper form and consistency to key for reducing risk maximize impact. Of course, every person’s journey with rheumatoid arthritis is unique, so it’s important to consult with an experienced physiotherapist or other healthcare professional to create an exercise plan tailored to your specific condition and needs. Remember that your journey with RA is ongoing, and it’s essential to adapt your approach as your needs change. With the right support, resources, and a commitment to your well-being, you can take control of your well-being, reduce your pain, and enhance your quality of life.

If you’re struggling with joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis and need help with managing your condition, we can help. Contact us today and let us show you why, at Physiomed…Healthier Starts Here.

Dr. Scott Wilson

Dr. Scott Wilson is the Founder & Chairman of Physiomed; one of Canada’s largest franchised networks of inter-disciplinary healthcare clinics. A graduate of Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Dr. Wilson founded Physiomed in 1994 and has since grown Physiomed to over 30 clinics in Southern Ontario and British Columbia. With hundreds of practitioners from over a dozen disciplines, Dr. Wilson and Physiomed have helped over 100,000 Canadians with physiotherapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, orthotic therapy, compression therapy and clinical conditioning as part of a program of rehabilitation and health optimization. In addition to helping patients improve their physical and mental well-being, Dr. Wilson has also mentored hundreds of practitioners to provide better care while enjoying more fulfilling careers. He is also a keynote speaker on many health related topics including how physiotherapy, chiropractic and health & wellness treatment can help with stress, weight loss, and unlocking the true potential within to achieve lasting physical well-being.

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