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What is Range of Motion?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Range of motion is a term that refers to the extent to which a joint or group of muscles can be flexed or extended. By studying people in a wide variety of physical conditions, researchers have determined normal measurements for all the major joints and muscle groups, and these measurements can be used to assess a patient. Many core exercises are aimed at increasing this range, and people can also embark on specific exercises that are designed to promote an increased ability to flex and extend various joints. This concept is closely related to flexibility.

In a simple example, imagine folding someone's elbow as much as possible into a flexed position, and then straightening it out into a fully extended position. The variation between the flexed and extended positions indicates that person's range of motion in the elbow joint, typically expressed in degrees. In the case of the elbow, the normal range extends from 0 to 145 degrees.

When determining how freely a patient can move particular joints and muscles, a doctor or physical therapist will perform both passive and active measurements. In a passive measurement, someone else gently flexes and extends the patient's joint, while active measurements require the patient to move the joint or muscle group, sometimes working against resistance such as a weight. Passive measurements are often higher, as the medical professional may be able to push the body more than the patient can.

A huge assortment of things can influence range of motion, including disease, injury, trauma, physical activity, and other events. People with a limited range may experience frustration because they cannot engage in many common tasks, and they can be at increased risk of injury and other medical problems as a result of their stiffer joints and muscle groups. For example, a woman who cannot fully bend her knee joint may be prone to falls or injuries to muscle groups in the leg.

Exercises such as yoga and Pilates, which are used to supplement regular exercise routines, usually increase range of motion by developing strong joints and muscle groups, and pushing muscles so that they can lengthen. Specific exercises can also be used to improve the ability of various joints and muscle groups to fully flex and contract, and these exercises are often part of a physical therapy regimen to help someone recover from a medical problem.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ghostpepper — On Jun 09, 2011

@popcorn- Yes, a visit to the doctor is definitely in order. It's important to keep all parts of your body healthy; no one wants their body to deteriorate further in the future because they did not go to the doctor when they were young. There are range of motion charts that you can find in a book or a doctor's office that may indicate whether your range of motion is appropriate for your age and body type.

By micheller23 — On Jun 08, 2011

@popcorn- I'm not a doctor, but my fiance has arthritis that affects his range of motion, and he's only 22! I didn't know before this that younger people could have arthritis. There are some range of motion exercises that he has to perform to help keep his joints from aching and improve his range of motion.

As others have mentioned, he does do some yoga, as well as some basic stretches. He got a list from a physical therapist at his doctor's office.

By MissDaphne — On Jun 08, 2011

Everyone should be thinking about their range of motion, not just people who are older or have had injuries. Use it or lose it! Find those exercises that challenge your full range of motion, at least as cross training.

If you usually run or swim, maybe try working out on a rowing machine once a week. If you lift weights, try a resistance band. (A weight feels lighter at the top of the lift, while a resistance band applies pressure all through the range of motion.) And for goodness' sake, if you can't complete a full movement, use a lighter weight!

By EdRick — On Jun 08, 2011

@popcorn - First, let me emphasize that I am absolutely, positively not a doctor! You don't say where you are in your twenties (twenty-two is one thing, twenty-nine is quite another) or what you've already tried. It might just be that you aren't as young as you used to be, or maybe you played sports in high school and now you're sedentary. You know yourself better than anyone; listen to your gut on this.

Trying yoga or pilates is a great idea. If it makes it better, great; if it makes it worse, definitely see your doctor. In fact, if you haven't had a checkup in a few years, why not make an appointment? You can get a physical and see if your doctor thinks that your fatigue is just natural or something more.

By popcorn — On Jun 08, 2011

Does anyone know some medical conditions that can affect your range of motion when you are still young, say in your twenties?

I find that sometimes I am unusually stiff and it feels difficult to loosen up my joints so that I can move as freely as I used to. I am not old and don't think I have suffered any injuries, but I am just always stiff and a bit achy.

I am wondering if this loss of range of motion should be a concern. Do you think a visit to a doctor is in order if you suffer from some loss of range of motion but have no other symptoms of anything being wrong?

By letshearit — On Jun 08, 2011

I find that as I age my range of motion gets more limited. Exercise though, has been a great help in keeping myself as flexible as possible.

I find that regular yoga and stretching sessions, as well as not remaining in any one position too long helps me keep my range of motion closer to how it was when I was younger.

If I experience any joint pain or muscle pain, I find that over the counter rubs health to soothe the uncomfortable feeling. I don't like the idea of stiffening up more as I age, so I think some minor discomfort is worth it to keep my range of motion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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