Elbow stiffness develops after injury or overuse of your arm muscles. Range-of-motion exercises decrease stiffness and improve movement of your elbow. These exercises require no equipment -- you can easily perform them sitting at your desk or while you watch television. Perform range-of-motion exercises three times each day until your elbow moves freely in all directions.
The elbow joint is a hinge, capable of bending and straightening. Two forearm bones also interact with your upper arm bone at your elbow to rotate your arm into a palm-up or palm-down position. Each of these movements is important for daily tasks. Elbow bending is needed for eating, washing your face, styling your hair and lifting objects. Elbow straightening helps you stand up from a seated position and push your car door closed. Forearm rotation is used to turn a doorknob, drive and use a curling iron. Exercises to improve elbow range of motion focus on these four movements.
Passive range-of-motion exercises rely on an outside force to stretch your elbow. These exercises are commonly performed after elbow injury, when muscles are too weak to move on their own. Passive elbow exercises can easily be performed using your opposite hand to move your stiff arm. Grasp your forearm with the opposite hand, just below your wrist, to support your arm through each movement.
For stiff elbows with tight muscles, apply pressure at the end-range of the movement -- the point where your elbow no longer moves easily. For example, bend your elbow slowly with the opposite hand until you feel resistance -- as if the tight muscles are pushing back against you. Hold your elbow in this position for five seconds. Use this technique as you move the elbow in each direction. Aim for 10 repetitions in each direction.
Active-assisted range-of-motion exercises improve elbow motion when your muscles can't perform the movement fully on their own. These exercises can be performed using your opposite arm -- similar to passive range of motion -- or another object to move your arm. For example, improve elbow bending and straightening with a broomstick: Grasp the stick with your hands palms up, shoulder-width apart. As you bend and straighten your elbows, one arm helps the other move. Use a hammer to improve forearm rotation. Hold the hammer close to the head initially to reduce the amount of pressure. Keeping a tight fist, hold your elbow by your side and rotate your forearm palm up, allowing the weight of the hammer to assist you. Use this technique to move into a palm-down position as well. Hold each position for five seconds to stretch the tight elbow, and repeat 10 times.
Active range of motion relies on the muscles around your elbow to move the joint. Elbow bending and straightening can be performed as one exercise, as well as rotation from palm up to palm down. Move as far as possible in each direction. Hold for five seconds at the end of each movement to stretch your elbow joint, and repeat 10 times.
Aubrey Bailey has been writing health-related articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine. She holds a Bachelor of Science in physical therapy and Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University at Buffalo, as well as a post-professional Doctor of Physical Therapy from Utica College. Dr. Bailey is also a certified hand therapist.