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Range of Motion and Positioning

Learning Guide

Why is Motion Important?

  Most people take free, comfortable movement for granted. Motion is meant to be smooth and painless. The ligaments, tendons, muscles, and joint capsules that surround each joint in the body work best if they are used regularly.


       As people get older, however, muscles gradually lose their strength, endurance, and flexibility. We experience a progressive loss of muscle mass at an average rate of 4% per decade from 25 to 50 years and 10% per decade thereafter. In addition, the joints in older people change, often becoming stiff and difficult or painful to move. Tissues in the joints sometimes become swollen or inflamed, hindering movement and making the joints more prone to injury.


       As a result, people tend to move less as they age. This is the worst thing we can do. Lack of activity worsens the changes that occur with aging. Research confirms that regular exercise can slow or reverse many changes associated with the age-related loss of strength, endurance, and flexibility.


       When people are not physically active, every cell and system in the body is affected. The body's cells and systems begin to lose the ability to perform their specialized functions.


       When movement is difficult, people experience a general decline in quality of life. Self-image often suffers.


       Lack of activity and exercise can lead to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other health problems. Decreased mobility hinders one's ability to feed and clothe oneself, to grocery shop, and to attend to personal hygiene. It promotes mental deterioration and loss of independence.


       In addition, when muscles are not used they continue to weaken. Muscle weakness increases the risk of falls, and, therefore, of fractures. The risk of falling increases with age. Falls are the leading cause of injury death for people ages 65 and older.

What Kinds of Motion are Best?

There are four types of exercise:


       ► Strength

       ► Stretching

       ► Endurance (Also known as cardiovascular)

       ► Range of motion


Exercise benefits people of all ages. Regular exercise can slow or reverse the decrease in mobility that contributes to disease and disability in the elderly.



     Even a small change in muscle size can make a big difference in strength. That's why strength exercises are so important. Improving muscle size by lifting small weights helps people build their capacity to do such things as walk, climb stairs, and carry a package. These kinds of activities can mean the difference between keeping one's independence and relying on others.



     Stretching exercises that gently stretch the muscles and tendons help ensure flexibility. Stretching exercises do not build strength or endurance. Clinical research has demonstrated that most elderly, even the frail, benefit from a combination of flexibility and strengthening exercises. It helps them maintain function and mobility, prolong independence, and improve their quality of life.



     Walking, running, bicycling, and swimming are examples of endurance exercise. By spending time in motion, the body and muscles become able to endure for longer periods of time, and the heart and lungs become stronger.


Range of motion

     Range of motion exercises are designed to increase flexibility.  Range of motion (ROM) is the normal amount a person's joints can be moved in certain directions, or the range in which you can move a body part around a joint. Limited range of motion is a reduction in the normal distance and direction through which a joint can move.


    When a joint is not fully extended on a regular basis, over time it will become permanently unable to extend beyond a certain fixed position. To keep the joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles loose and flexible, ROM exercises are used. These exercises move the joints through a full range of motion, helping to prevent stiffening.

Getting Started


     By doing a little exercise regularly, even in small ten-minute increments several times a week, it's possible to offset a variety of health problems. Exercise can help produce new red blood cells, strengthen the immune system, and improve bone density. Physical activity, even at low intensity in short sessions, may reduce the risk for certain chronic diseases. Exercise also helps relieve depression.


     Older adults need to be up and moving seven days a week.  They should spend time 3-5 days a week doing flexibility exercises or walking.  Daily activities do not move joints through their full ROM.


     Caregivers can help clients improve their health by encouraging them to exercise.

Exercise tips


      ► Move joints through their full range of motion 1-2 times a day.

      ► Do each exercise 3-10 times.

      ► Move slowly. Do not bounce.

      ► Breathe while you exercise. Count aloud.

      ► Begin exercises slowly, doing each exercise a few times and gradually building up.

      ► Try to achieve full range of motion by moving until you feel a slight stretch, but don't force a movement.

      ► Stop exercising if you have severe pain.

      ► Encourage clients with limited mobility to bear weight during transfers from bed to chair, and to walk whenever possible.

Range of Motion Exercises that can be Done While Seated


      ► Neck (Breathe with the movements, breathing out when the head moves down, breathing in when it moves up. Don't let shoulders or upper body sway to the side.)

           1. Turn head slowly to the right, then to the left. Repeat three to four times.

           2. Tilt head toward one shoulder, then toward the other shoulder. Repeat 3-4 times.


      ► Arms and shoulders

           1. Raise shoulders up toward ears and hold. Make full circles: up, forward, down, and back.

           2. Take a deep breath, extend arms overhead. Exhale slowly, dropping arms.


      ► Hands and fingers

           1. Massage each hand, one at a time. Take your time; go in between each finger.

           2. Raise hands up and back. Slowly rotate hands down and around in circles.

           3. Close hand in a fist. Open hands fully, stretching fingers and thumbs out wide.


      ► Chest and upper body

           1. With hands on waist, tilt to the right, return to center, then tilt to the left and return to center. Exhale as the movement goes down; inhale as the movement comes up. Don't allow

               upper body to tilt forward. Don't try to hold head up; instead, let it relax to the side.

           2. Sit straight in chair with hands on your hips. Gently rock hips from side to side.


      ► Legs

           1. Raise right leg up and forward. Repeat with left leg.

           2. Sit up straight, knees together, with legs extended forward as far as possible, keeping feet on floor. Slowly stretch forward, sliding both hands down to ankles. Hold 10-15


           3. Grasp one knee with both arms, pull to chest, and hold for five counts. Repeat with opposite leg.


      ► Ankle and Foot

            1. Point toes toward floor. Point toes toward ceiling. Slowly rotate feet in circles.

            2. Cross right leg over left knee. Rotate foot slowly, making large complete circles—ten rotations to the right, ten to the left. Repeat for left leg.

Passive Range of Motion Exercises


     When an individual is able to perform range of motion exercises with minimal assistance, the person is doing active range of motion. When an individual is unable to perform range of motion exercises, a caregiver should move the person's joints in passive range of motion exercises at least once or twice a day.


     Use the chart below to guide you in moving every joint in the body through its full range of motion. Go slowly and be very gentle. Do not force any body part to move in any way that creates resistance or causes discomfort.

Know these terms:


      ► Flexion: forward bending

      ► Extension: straighten out

      ► Hyper-extension: backward bending

      ► Lateral flexion: sideways bending

      ► Internal rotation: turn toward the body

      ► External rotation: turn away from the body

      ► Circumduction: move in a circle

      ► Abduction: move away from the body (think of "abduct," or "take away")

      ► Adduction: move toward and/or across the body (think "add to the body")

      ► Inversion: move or twist inward

      ► Eversion: move or twist outward

      ► Supination: turn or lie upward; face up

      ► Pronation: turn or lie downward; face down



     Everyone positions themselves when they sit, stand, move, and lie down. The position we use for these activities affects circulation, joint pressure, and muscle use.


     People with limited mobility who sit or lie down for long periods of time are prone to skin breakdown and deterioration of muscles or nerves. Using correct positioning can prevent these problems. It is important to limit pressure over bony parts of the body by changing positions. Use pillows to keep knees and/or ankles from touching each other. Clients who are bedridden should avoid lying directly on their hipbones when on their sides. Help clients to use positions that spread weight and pressure evenly, with pillows placed to provide support and comfort.


     A person in a chair or wheelchair should use a cushion. Avoid donut-shaped cushions because they reduce blood flow and cause tissue to swell. People sitting in chairs or wheelchairs should change positions every hour. Good posture and comfort are both important.


Some basic rules of positioning


    ► Always be familiar with a client's plan of care. Specific issues such as fractures, skin integrity, and health condition will determine the type of positioning that should be done.


    ► Turn individuals who cannot turn themselves at least every two hours when in bed. A person in a wheelchair should change positions at least every hour. External pressure from

         staying in one position compresses the skin's blood vessels and obstructs circulation, especially over the bones, leading to skin breakdown.


    ► When moving a client, lift rather than drag. Dragging creates friction and heat, which can lead to skin breakdown.


    ► Straighten sheets and clothing to remove wrinkles.


Bed positioning tips


    ► Position the spine in alignment.


    ► Place pillows under both arms. When bedridden clients lie on their back with forearms and palms facing down, pressure can damage wrist nerves.


    ► Place pillows under legs from mid-calf to ankle to keep heels off the bed. Do not put a pillow under the knees only, as doing so will cause the heel to rub against the bed.


    ► Hand rolls (Roll washcloths and place in hands to prevent freezing of finger joints).


    ► Use foot-positioning devices such as shoes, boots, and foot-boards.





     Supine (on back)


    ► Place a pillow under the head.


    ► Position the hips straight without leg rotation.


    ► Position the upper extremities away from the body.


    ► Support the arms when the client is lying on his side.


    ► Keep the knee joints flexed 15 degrees when the client is supine (lying on the back).


    ► Turn the client from side to side and prone (lying face down) on a scheduled basis.


    ► Keep the head in a straight, mid-line position.


     Lying on side


    ► Position client up in bed if needed.  Position client to one side of bed. Turn client by sliding arm under the shoulders and head; lift upper body over, then move hips and legs.


    ► Cross the client's top ankle over the bottom ankle, or flex top knee.


    ► Turn the client by placing one hand on the shoulder and one hand on the hip.


    ► Place pillow under head and another behind client's back.


    ► Support flexed extremities with pillows and positioning devices.


    ► Ensure proper body alignment.


     Prone (on stomach)


    ► Lift client toward you.


    ► Cross the client's top ankle over the bottom ankle, or flex top knee.


    ► Bend arm up around head.


    ► Place other arm at side.


    ► Place pillow under abdominal muscles.


    ► Roll client on stomach.


    ► Support ankles with pillows.


     Positioning While Seated


    ► Seat client in a chair that supports the back


    ► Keep ears in line with the hips.


    ► Support the curve of the lower back with a rolled up towel or lumbar roll.


    ► Knees should be level with the hips.


    ► Feet should be flat on the floor or on a footrest.


     Positioning While Standing (To help clients learn balance when using walkers or canes)


    ► Position the feet a few inches apart.


    ► Position the hips in front of the ankles.


    ► Position the shoulders over the hips.


    ► Keep the head balanced over the hips.


    ► Keep the spine straight.


​Range of motion exercises and proper positioning can help prevent the permanent disabilities and life-threatening complications that often result from immobility. Caregivers need to intervene to prevent physical decline anddeterioration. We can accomplish this by keeping clients moving.

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