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Spinal Cord Injury: Flexibility Exercises

Overview

Flexibility exercises can help you keep your range of motion when you have an SCI. You may be able to do some of the flexibility exercises yourself. A loved one or a physical or occupational therapist can help you with others.

When you do these stretches, make sure that you have something solid behind you that doesn't move. You can try the stretches in your wheelchair (make sure that it's firmly locked) or in a bed against the headboard. Different locations might be better for different exercises. Find what works best for you.

Do all stretches gradually, and never force the stretch. Don't push or bounce the stretch. You should feel a "stretch," not pain. Breathe out as you start the stretch, and breathe in while you hold the stretch. Breathe out as you relax the stretch.

How long and how often you do a stretch may vary. The information below shows general guidelines. Always ask your doctor about what is best for you.

  • Stretch your upper body.

    Here's a chest stretch you can try:

    • Lie on your back.
    • Extend your arms straight out to the sides with your palms turned up to stretch the front of your chest.
    • Stay in this position for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times.
    • Or you can just lie in this position for about 3 to 5 minutes if it is comfortable for you.

    You can also stretch the front of your chest when you sit in a chair or wheelchair.

    • With the chair in a doorway, raise your arm to the side and bend your elbow.
    • Put your hand and forearm against the doorway. Then lean forward to stretch your chest and the front of your shoulder.
    • Hold the stretch at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times with each arm.

    Here's a shoulder stretch you can try:

    • Lie on your back.
    • Raise your arms straight up and over your head to stretch your shoulders.
    • Stay in this position for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times.
    • Or you can just lie in this position for about 3 to 5 minutes if it's comfortable for you.
    • You can also stretch your arms up over your head while you are sitting up.
  • Stretch your lower body.

    Here's a stretch you can start with:

    • Place your left hand or wrist under your left knee.
    • Pull your left knee up toward your chest.
    • Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times.
    • Do the same exercise with your right hand and right knee.

    Here's another one you can try:

    • Sit with your left knee bent up toward your chest.
    • Put your left hand and lower arm on the left side (outside) of your knee.
    • Gently push your knee toward your right leg. Don't force the stretch.
    • Hold for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times.
    • Do the same exercise with your right hand and right knee.

    You can also do this stretch by pushing your knee away from your leg:

    • Sit with your left knee bent up toward your chest.
    • Put your left hand and lower arm on the right side (inside) of your knee.
    • Gently push your knee away from your right leg. Don't force the stretch.
    • Hold for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 2 to 4 times.
    • Do the same exercise with your right hand and right knee.

    Here's another one:

    • Face a bed or chair that is about the same height you are sitting at.
    • Put one leg on the bed or chair and keep it straight. Don't bend your knee. Don't bend forward as you do this, because it will stretch you too much.
    • Hold this position for 3 to 5 minutes on each leg.

    To do this next stretch, you loop a strap around the bottom of your foot:

    • Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you.
    • Lean forward, and loop a strap around the bottom of your foot.
    • Pull on the strap gently, and continue to lean forward while keeping your knees straight. Don't turn your foot to either side.
    • Hold this stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
    • Repeat 10 times.

    This next stretch you do lying on your belly. People with a spinal cord injury who are sitting most of the time can get tight muscles in the front of their hips and the back of their legs. So it's important to spend time lying on your belly each day. Here's how:

    • Lie on your belly with your legs stretched straight out. This will help stretch these muscles.
    • Try to relax all your muscles and stay in this position for at least half an hour.

    Some people even learn to sleep on their belly, so they are in this position all night.

Consider doing your stretches in the morning or evening at the same time you check your skin for pressure injuries.

Keep in mind that it's possible to stretch too much. This can make it harder to balance and to do activities such as dressing yourself. Work with your rehabilitation team to come up with a stretching program that's right for you.

Another option: Passive stretching

If you aren't able to stretch your muscles yourself because of a spinal cord injury, you can do passive stretching. This means that someone stretches the muscle for you. This type of stretch can be done for upper and lower body muscles. Your rehabilitation (rehab) team will be able to teach a loved one how to do these exercises. They include:

  • Flexing and extending the hip, knee, shoulder, wrist, fingers, and elbow.
  • Stretching the hamstring (the muscle on the back of the thigh) and foot and ankle muscles.
  • Rotating the hip and shoulder.

Related Information

Credits

Current as of: December 13, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Nancy Greenwald MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

 

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