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5 Recovery Strategies for Athletes: Part 5 - Joint Mobilizations

What are joint mobilizations?

Joint mobilizations are a manual (hands-on) therapy technique used by physical therapists to treat patients with various soft tissue (muscle, tendon, ligament) and bone injuries or pain. Just as you would stretch a tight muscle, joint mobilizations are stretching techniques for tight, or hypomobile, joints. However, unlike stretching a muscle like you may do in yoga, stretching a joint is not as easy and requires the skill of a physical therapist who understands how to properly perform the appropriate techniques to get you living pain free again!

How can joint mobilizations help you?

Joint mobilizations can be beneficial in a number of scenarios. First, as mentioned above, they are used on a hypomobile joint. When a joint is hypomobile it may cause stiffness, pain, and decreased range of motion. Hypomobility can be caused by a few different factors. If someone is in pain, they tend to move less, which allows the joint to stiffen up further. Alternatively, a person with arthritis may have joint discomfort due to the decrease in cartilage, which can also cause the joint to become increasingly stiff. Besides helping with joint stiffness, joint mobilizations have also been shown to reduce pain. Lastly, joint mobilizations have positive affects on your neurophysiology (nervous system). Mobilizations not only reduce pain, but have also been shown to increase muscular activity. A study performed by Cleland et al. (2004) looked at muscle activity after high velocity low amplitude (HVLA) thrusts, also known as manipulations, were performed on the participants’ thoracic spine. The participants of this study had a significant increase in their lower trapezius muscle strength, which was important because of the importance of this muscle for the health of the shoulder.

What are manipulations?

During your session, the physical therapist may use different grades of joint mobilizations. One of these grades is known as high velocity low amplitude (HVLA), also know as a manipulation. Similar to joint mobilizations, manipulations have been shown to benefit, potentially to a greater degree, both pain and joint stiffness. With manipulations, a person may experience a cavitation, or a “cracking sound”. Although some people are apprehensive to this sound and believe it is causing harm, it is just air being released from the joint and has no negative affect on joint health.

Key Takeaways

  • Joint mobilizations can eliminate nagging pain and help you recover from injuries quickly
  • Joint manipulations may be even more beneficial than mobilizations depending on your pain or injury
  • Both mobilizations and manipulations aim to provide you with long term relief rather than a “quick fix” that wears off within a day or two
  • Cracking of joints does not mean you’re causing harm
  • Manual therapy far exceeds the benefits of the standard ice and heat modalities many professionals offer for pain relief