What is mobility... and does it really matter?
What is joint mobility?
Joint mobility is the ability of joints to move through their full and functional range of motion.
We need our joints to be able to move normally for our daily activities as well as exercise. When our joints are limited we move in different ways to compensate, which increases our risk of injury.
Our joint mobility can be limited by:
- Shortness or tightness of surrounding muscles
- Increased neural firing to surrounding muscles, making them overactive and tense
- Decreased ability of the nerves to stretch and glide as we move
- Prolonged and sustained postures, such as sitting at work
- Tightness of connective tissues or joint capsules
Which joints are affected?
Problems can happen in any joint, but research has shown the following joints are commonly affected by reduced mobility:
- Ankle - Linked to overuse injuries of the foot and ankle.
- Hip - Contributes to injuries such as adductor tear, adductor tendinopathy and osteitis pubis, as well as lower back and knee issues
- Thoracic spine - Reduced extension and rotation commonly contribute to lower back, neck and shoulder pain.
- Hamstring and hip flexor length - One study showed soccer players who sustained a muscle strain throughout a particular season all had lower pre-season range of motion in the affected muscle groups, indicating a link between reduced range of motion and risk of muscle strains.
Why does mobility matter?
There are two main reasons why mobility matters. First, it helps you move better and prevent injury. Second, it helps you recover normal function and return to activities more quickly if an injury does happen.
Studies have shown a number of links between reduced range of motion and both acute soft tissue and chronic overuse injuries.
A stiff joint limits what the muscles around it can do and the force they can produce. This means you move less efficiently and the body might need to recruit other muscles to help out. For example, if you're running or walking with a reduced range of motion in your hips, your glutes will be less efficient and the body will compensate by recruiting your quadriceps or hip flexors as well. These muscles then have to work at a role they weren't designed for, which can lead to injuries.
Before strengthening muscles, you need to make sure the joints they act on have enough range of movement. Otherwise, any strength training not only becomes ineffective, but may also put you at increased risk of injury.
After an injury, muscles may go into spasm, the joint capsule can become thick and stiff and scar tissue might also be present. All these can limit joint mobility.
For example, an important part of the running cycle is when your heel strikes the ground - it allows weight transfer from one foot to the next and requires dorsiflexion in the ankle. If you were to sprain your ankle, stiffness afterwards may prevent this normal heel strike, force absorption and weight transfer from occurring. This could cause further pain and injury to the ankle, as well as other areas of the body due to compensatory strategies. Until your ankle gets its normal range of motion back, normal running mechanics aren't possible and you're at risk of injury.
That's why mobility makes up a big part of the rehab process and is particularly important early on.
I'm not an athlete - does it matter to me?
Normal joint mobility is important to everyone, not just people who play sport or do other exercise. Older people and children may be particularly affected:
As we age, our muscles and the connective tissues in our joints become less elastic and compliant. There are also bony changes to the surface of joints, affecting how they align and move. Unfortunately, these factors mean the available range of motion in each joint decreases by an average of about five degrees a decade, according to research.
Research has also identified links between decreased mobility and the risk of falls. One study shows that older people who'd had a fall also tended to have significantly decreased hip extension, hip internal rotation, hip abduction, ankle dorsiflexion and calf muscle length when compared to peers who hadn't had a fall.
Both these suggest that specific exercises to address mobility as we age could help us carry out daily activities for longer, and reduce the risk of falls (and all the health complications they can cause).
You've probably heard of ‘growing pains’, and research shows they may actually affect nearly a third of primary-aged school children. It's thought these pains happen when children's bones grow faster than their muscles and ligaments. This stretches muscles to their limit, increases the forces through joints and often causes irritation where the muscle attaches to the bone.
This will affect the way the child moves and increases their risk of injury, as well as being uncomfortable. A stretching program is often prescribed to reduce the discomfort, particularly in the calf, hamstring and quad muscles.
How can I improve my mobility?
There's a lot you can do at home to improve mobility, often without any special equipment.
- Stretching tight muscles
- Muscle release techniques (for example foam rolling and trigger release)
- Specific mobility exercises
- Posture adjustments
Our top 5 exercises for healthy joints
If you only have time for five stretches, these will target those crucial joints in the upper and lower back, hips and ankle that are commonly affected by reduced mobility.
1. Windmill (thoracic spine)
Keep hips facing forward, rotate through spine and, keeping arm straight, reach back behind you to try and touch back of arm and shoulder to ground. Repeat 10 times each side.
2. Hip flexor stretch (hips)
Tilt pelvis under, squeeze bottom and slight lunge forward - you should feel stretch through front of hip/thigh. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on other side.
3. Foam roll lower back and glutes (lumbar spine)
Arch back over roller, moving it up and down along spine to massage lower back and top of glutes. You can use a rolled up towel if you don't have a foam roller.
4. Passive extensions (lumbar spine)
Push through hands to arch up into extension. Repeat 10 times
5. Calf stretch (ankles)
As shown in the photos below there are 2 approaches to this exercise:
a) Stand on the edge of step with your front knee slightly bent and drop other heel off back of step
b) Step one foot in front of other, bend front knee and keep back heel on the ground.
Hold stretch for 30 seconds on each side
This article is intended as general information only. If you have concerns about this, or any other, aspect of your health, we always recommend you seek professional medical advice. Our physios are available six days a week and we're always happy to hear from patients, old and new.
About the author
Bay Active physiotherapist Emily Leys is also a team physio for the NSW Waratahs and a professional cricket player for the Sydney Sixers. She graduated from the University of Sydney in 2015 and has a particular interest in sports and soft tissue injuries.