What causes joint contractures and how to treat them?

Symptom Database

Joint contractures are a common condition that can cause significant discomfort and limited mobility. They occur when the connective tissues surrounding a joint become tight and restrict its movement. Contractures can affect any joint in the body, including the knees, elbows, shoulders, and fingers. In this article, we will explore the causes of joint contractures and discuss various treatment options to alleviate symptoms and improve joint flexibility.

What causes joint contractures?

There are several factors that can contribute to the development of joint contractures. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Immobility: Prolonged periods of inactivity or immobilization can lead to joint stiffness and contractures. This can occur in individuals who are bedridden, have limited mobility, or are recovering from surgery.
  • Muscle weakness: Weak muscles surrounding a joint can result in an imbalance of forces, causing the joint to become misaligned and contract.
  • Scar tissue formation: Following an injury or surgery, the body may produce excess scar tissue around the joint. This scar tissue can restrict movement and lead to contractures.
  • Neurological conditions: Certain neurological conditions, such as stroke or cerebral palsy, can affect the signals sent from the brain to the muscles, leading to muscle imbalances and joint contractures.

Joint contracture symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of joint contractures is crucial for early intervention and effective treatment. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and discomfort: Contractures can cause pain and discomfort, especially when attempting to move the affected joint.
  • Stiffness: Joint stiffness is a hallmark symptom of contractures. The affected joint may feel tight and difficult to move.
  • Limited range of motion: Contractures restrict the normal range of motion of a joint, making it challenging to perform everyday activities.
  • Deformity: In severe cases, joint contractures can lead to joint deformities, such as bent or twisted joints.

Preventing joint contractures

While joint contractures can be challenging to treat, there are steps you can take to prevent their development. Here are some preventive measures:

  • Regular exercise: Engaging in regular exercise helps maintain joint flexibility and muscle strength, reducing the risk of contractures.
  • Proper positioning: If you have limited mobility, it is essential to maintain proper joint positioning to prevent contractures. Use pillows or cushions to support your joints and avoid prolonged periods of immobility.
  • Stretching: Incorporate stretching exercises into your daily routine to keep your joints flexible and prevent stiffness.
  • Stay hydrated: Drinking an adequate amount of water helps keep your joints lubricated and reduces the risk of stiffness.

Management of joint contractures

When it comes to managing joint contractures, a multi-faceted approach is often necessary. Here are some treatment options that can help alleviate symptoms and improve joint flexibility:

Physical therapy

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the treatment of joint contractures. A physical therapist can design a personalized exercise program to stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joint. They may also use techniques such as manual therapy and splinting to improve joint mobility.


In some cases, medications may be prescribed to manage pain and inflammation associated with joint contractures. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants are commonly used to provide relief.

Surgical intervention

If conservative treatments fail to improve joint contractures, surgical intervention may be necessary. Surgical procedures can involve releasing tight connective tissues, removing scar tissue, or realigning the joint to restore normal function.

Assistive devices

Assistive devices, such as braces or splints, can help support the affected joint and prevent further contracture development. These devices are often used in conjunction with physical therapy to maximize their effectiveness.

Exercises for joint contractures

Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining joint flexibility and preventing contractures. Here are some exercises that can help improve joint mobility:

  • Range of motion exercises: Gently move the affected joint through its full range of motion, focusing on stretching and extending the muscles surrounding the joint.
  • Strengthening exercises: Strengthening the muscles surrounding the affected joint can help improve stability and prevent further contracture development.
  • Stretching exercises: Perform gentle stretching exercises to lengthen the muscles and improve joint flexibility.

It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or physical therapist before starting any exercise program to ensure it is safe and appropriate for your specific condition.

Joint contracture complications

If left untreated, joint contractures can lead to several complications, including:

  • Chronic pain: Untreated contractures can cause chronic pain and discomfort, significantly impacting quality of life.
  • Loss of function: Contractures restrict joint movement, making it difficult to perform daily activities and tasks.
  • Joint deformities: Severe contractures can result in permanent joint deformities, which may require surgical intervention to correct.

Early intervention and appropriate treatment are essential to prevent these complications and improve overall joint health.

In conclusion, joint contractures can significantly impact joint flexibility and overall quality of life. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial for effective management. By incorporating preventive measures, seeking early intervention, and following a comprehensive treatment plan, individuals with joint contractures can experience improved joint mobility and reduced pain.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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