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Our age, weight, lifestyle, environmental factors like temperature, posture, repetitive strain injuries, and history of joint injury or a systemic disease like gout - all have a bearing on our joint health. Happily, there are several things we can do to maintain the range of motion of our joints.

Joints are structures in the body where two or more bones meet. There is an intricate network of connective tissues - ligaments and tendons, supporting muscles and fluid that work together to maintain the smooth movement and integrity of joints like our fingers, toes, ankles, wrists, knees, elbows, shoulders, hip and neck.

There are two types of joints in the human body: ball joints and hinge joints. And there are two types of movement possible with these joints: arthrokinetic and orthokinetic. Arthrokinetic movements comprise the gliding, rolling, spinning and compression of two or more bones in the joint. Orthokinetic movements are bigger movements, like the flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal rotation and external rotation of the joints.

Ball joints allow us to move in multiple directions. Case in point: our shoulders attach to upper arms at a ball-and-socket joint called the glenohumeral joint. This joint allows the arms to move up, down, side-to-side and rotate all the way around. The shoulder also allows the scapula - our shoulder blades - to move forward, back and from side to side. How momentous is this? Just think of the late Michael Jackson’s sensational shoulder isolations - they wouldn’t have been possible without amazing shoulder joint mobility. Another example of the ball joint is our hip (Michael Jackson’s Thriller video wouldn’t have been possible without a tremendous range of motion in this joint, too).

Hinge joints - like the joints in our knees, ankles, and even our fingers - allow less movement compared to ball joints but the movement is still significant. Example: each of our fingers has three joints that allow us to curl our fingers to make a fist, bend them slightly to type and grip a knife tightly to cut vegetables.

We all take our joints - and their range of motion - for granted until we experience pain or difficulty achieving these movements. Naturally, people with gout, arthritis, ACL injury, hip injury, cervical pain or any type of tendon injury would find it difficult to move the affected joints in the body. For them, physiotherapists have devised many effective programmes that vary with the type and severity of their condition. For everyone else, there are simple movements that we can do to reduce joint stiffness and maintain the health of our joints.

In this article, we’ll tell you about five things everyone who is healthy should do for joint mobility as soon as they get out of bed:

  1. Pandiculate: full-body stretch with a yawn
  2. Neck joint mobilization
  3. Shoulder joint mobilization
  4. Back mobilization: mobilizing the spine
  5. Hip joint mobilization
  6. Move your wrists, ankles, fingers and toes
  7. Takeaways for joint mobility exercises
  8. Doctors for 5 joint mobility exercises to do early morning

The first thing we do instinctively after waking up is to stretch the whole body. This is known as pandiculating - and it is a good idea as it stretches all the muscles and joints after a whole night of lying in odd positions. Doing this also relieves any tension in the muscles after waking up. Try it this way:

  • Get out of bed and stretch your arms on either side of your body. Really stretch your arms to the sides, as if you’re trying to touch the walls on either side of your body.
  • Now interlock your fingers and take your arms overhead.
  • Try to reach up towards the ceiling - first with your right arm and then with the left. Relax the shoulders.
  • If you feel comfortable and ready, come up on your toes as you continue to pull the spine (and arms) up.

Our cervical spine runs through the neck and takes quite a bit of strain when we look down at our phones to text or spend hours looking at a tiny laptop screen in the office. To mobilize the neck, do the following: 

  • Start by gently dropping your neck down. Hold for a few seconds.
  • Gently look up and let your head fall back. Hold for a few seconds.
  • Repeat three to four times.
  • Now, drop your head down and do half rotations: first, move your head to your right. Hold for a few seconds. Slowly return your head to the down position and then to the left. Hold for a few seconds. Keep your eyes open throughout this movement.
  • Next, drop your head to the right side. Gently place your right hand on the left side of your head to increase the stretch. Repeat on the other side. Do three to four repetitions of the side by side movement.

Also known as the glenohumeral joint, the shoulder joint holds up eight large and small muscles in the upper body. There are at least three main bones to take care of here: the shoulder blade or scapula, the collarbone or clavicle and the acromion which links the scapula and collarbone.

The joint allows the arm to move up, down and around in all directions. The shoulder is also capable of moving up-down (as in a shoulder shrug), forward-back and around, even without moving the arms. To mobilize the shoulders:

  • Start by bending your elbows and placing your hands on your shoulders. Now, make big circles in the air with your elbows in the clockwise direction. Do this 10 times. Now repeat the same number of repetitions in the anti-clockwise direction.
  • Now, stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your sides. Twist from the waist to turn left, while moving both arms left and above your head. Swing the arms down as you twist from the waist to the right and then move your arms up to the right. Do this 10 times on each side. Doing this also opens up the upper back.

The spine is basically a huge stack of 33 bones separated by gel-filled sacks to cushion every movement we make. The bones in the spine are:

  • Seven vertebrae in the neck
  • 12 vertebrae in the upper back
  • Five vertebrae in the lumbar region or lower back
  • Five vertebrae in the sacral region where the back meets the hip
  • Four vertebrae in the coccyx or tailbone area

Back mobilization should ideally target all of these. Thankfully, there’s a simple way to do this:

  • Stand on a mat with your feet together or slightly apart, whichever is more comfortable.
  • Gently drop your head to touch your chin to your chest.
  • Roll down vertebrae by vertebrae to bend over till your hands reach the floor. (If this is not possible, go as far down as you can and hold for at least 30 seconds.)
  • If you can touch the floor with your hands, hold your big toes between the index finger and thumb of each hand. Bend your knees and come into a deep squat. Now, straighten the legs again to push the hips up towards the ceiling.
  • Release the toes and roll up slowly and gently - vertebrae by vertebrae. Your head should come up last.
  • Remember to breathe throughout this exercise. And do not lift your head or look up at any point in this exercise.
  • Do two or three rounds of this.

Alternatively, you can do the Bhujangasana (cobra pose) followed by the cat pose and cow pose - even without fully getting out of the bed - to stretch the shoulders and back.

You’ve probably heard the term hip openers thrown around the gym and yoga studio. This is because advancing age, bad posture and a sedentary lifestyle - all affect the hips adversely. Hip openers are designed to improve the mobility and flexibility of the hip joint and strengthen it as well. One simple thing we can do every morning is hip rotations. Simply make a big circle in the air with your hips in the clockwise direction, then the anticlockwise direction. Here’s another - quite effective - mobilization exercise for the hips:

  • Stand straight with your feet together and arms akimbo - hands placed on your waist.
  • Lift your right knee up to hip level. Without moving your hip, turn the right leg out so the knee is facing your right side.
  • Bring the knee down and back to facing the front.
  • Repeat with the left knee. 

Finally, the joints that we often forget: wrists, ankles, fingers and toes. If we just remember these in our day-to-day workout, we can avoid (or at least delay) problems like wrist arthritis, wrist pain and gout. Here are tiny movements we can all do, several times a day, starting now:

  • Wiggle your toes
  • Stretch your fingers out as much as possible, then form a tight fist and repeat
  • Move your wrists up and down. Now rotate them clockwise 10 times and anti-clockwise 10 times.
  • Flex and point your feet. Now rotate them clockwise 10 times and anti-clockwise 10 times. 

Joint mobility exercises should be done in at least two instances:

  • Soon after waking up
  • Before a strength training workout: For example, if you have a shoulder day at the gym, you must do shoulder mobility exercises along with the warm-up.

Joint mobility exercises are different from flexibility exercises in one key respect: the focus is squarely on increasing or maintaining the range of motion of the joints. That said, some mobility exercises can also help to stretch and strengthen the muscles that support the joints.

If you have a chronic condition like arthritis or osteoporosis, some of these exercises may help you to slow down the progression of your disease and its symptoms. However, it is best to consult your doctor and/or physiotherapist before starting any exercises for osteoporosis and exercises for arthritis. People with joint stiffness and joint pain should also consult a doctor for the proper medication in addition to lifestyle changes like exercise for relief.

Dr. Girish Chandra Joshi

Dr. Girish Chandra Joshi

Physiotherapist
15 Years of Experience

Dr. Apurva Shrivastava

Dr. Apurva Shrivastava

Physiotherapist
7 Years of Experience

Dr. Priya Verma

Dr. Priya Verma

Physiotherapist
4 Years of Experience

Dr. Ruchi Sharma

Dr. Ruchi Sharma

Physiotherapist
4 Years of Experience

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References

  1. Cory Christiansen. Impaired joint mobility. In Geriatric Physical Therapy (Third Edition), 2012.
  2. Hyun-Ja Lim, Young-Im Moon and Myeong Soo Lee. [linl]. Rheumatology International, 14 January 2005; 25: 225–229.
  3. Sakiko Oyama, Araceli Sosa and Jose Javier Muñoz Romero. Effects of 7-week shoulder exercise intervention on joint mobility, strength and function in diabetics and non-diabetics. International Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Journal, 22 January 2018; 3(1):
  4. Todd S. Ellenbecker and George J. Davies. Closed Kinetic Chain Exercise: A Comprehensive Guide to Multiple Joint Exercise. Human Kinetics Publishers, 2001.
  5. Hart D.L. and Carmichael S.W. Biomechanics of the Shoulder. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 1985; 6(4): 229-234.
  6. Riley M.A. and Lohman H.L. Orthotic Intervention for Older Adults. In Introduction to Orthotics: A Clinical Reasoning & Problem-Solving Approach (4th ed.) by B.M. Coppard and H. Lohman.
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