For patients with pain in their joints, the thought of exercise can be, well, painful.

Yet exercise is critical to relieving pain. That is because exercising painful joints helps replenish necessary lubrication to joint cartilage and can reduce stiffness, inflammation and pain. In addition, for those with pain in weight-bearing joints, such as the lower back, hips and knees, exercise can support weight loss and alleviate extra pressure on the joints.

But for those with joint pain, it is important to remember that not all exercise is the same. The goal is to improve the joint’s range of motion and strength without causing additional damage.

Recommended Exercises to Alleviate Joint Pain

Pain can strike any of the body’s joints, including the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, back and ankles. Ideally, exercises should be targeted to the specific joint that is causing pain, however, there are a number of general low-impact exercises that can be beneficial. These include:

  •       Cycling: Cycling is one of the best workouts for sore knee joints because it moves the joint through a full range of motion. This produces more of the lubricating fluid that protects the joint while at the same time strengthening neighboring muscles and ligaments.
  •       Swimming: In terms of providing an overall workout with the lowest impact to sore joints, swimming can’t be beat. The water provides the necessary resistance to build strength while also providing buoyancy that softens the impact of movement. It also offers a great aerobic workout for the cardiovascular system.
  •       Stretching: Think of stretching as the body’s pre-heat stage. Just as you have to warm up the oven before baking, you need to warm up the major muscles before engaging in more active exercise. Whether stretching-and-holding or doing moving stretches, such as exaggerated kick steps, these light rhythmic motions increase blood flow, strengthen muscle fibers and increase muscle temperature. 
  •       Tai Chi: Researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston have found that tai chi’s slow, graceful movements can improve balance, reduce stress and offer arthritis pain relief.
  •       Walking: One of the best ways to combat joint stiffness is to move the joints. For those with knee arthritis, walking is a great way to do this. Some people find that applying heat to the knees before walking can help alleviate some discomfort. The key is to start slowly and gradually pick up speed, if able. Even 10 minutes of walking several times a day can reap tremendous benefits.
  •       Yoga: According to the Arthritis Foundation, yoga has been proven to help people with arthritis improve joint pain and stiffness. It can help improve muscle strength, balance and flexibility, while also reducing stress and anxiety. 

What if Exercise Alone Isn’t Enough?

In some cases, exercise alone will not be enough to address joint pain and stiffness. Patients may need to call upon the expertise of an experienced pain specialist who can provide a proper diagnosis and recommend interventions that can help. Steroidal injections, nerve blocks and spinal spacers are just a few of the options that may be appropriate, depending on the source and degree of pain.

Even with interventions such as these, however, exercise is always an essential part of any treatment plan. The body is meant to move, and with a combination of the right therapies, patients can find they can do so with less pain—or no pain at all.

Dr. Ioannis Skaribas is fellowship-trained and double board certified in Pain Medicine and Anesthesiology. He has been performing minimally invasive treatments to address chronic pain for more than 25 years and is nationally recognized for his expertise in diagnosing and treating difficult cases of complex chronic pain. 


Arthritis.Org: Tai Chi for Arthritis

Arthritis.Org: Yoga Benefits for Arthritis