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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 3, 2023.

What is a contracture?

A contracture is limited movement of a joint. You may have pain when you try to move or fully extend the joint. A contracture is usually caused by changes in the skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, or ligaments that surround the joint.

What causes a contracture?

A contracture is caused by conditions that limit or prevent movement, affect muscle tone, or cause weakness. Any of the following may cause a contracture:

  • Joint injury or surgery
  • Arthritis or joint infection
  • Scarring caused by burns
  • Muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy
  • Nerve damage
  • Being inactive for a long period of time

How is a contracture diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and any medical conditions you have. Your provider will examine your affected limb, and check your joint's movement and range of motion. Range of motion is how far you can move your joint in different directions. X-rays may be done to find the cause of your contracture.

How is a contracture treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your contracture. You may need any of the following:

  • Physical therapy may be recommended. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain.
  • Heat therapy using ultrasound, liquid wax (paraffin), or water may be done. It can help to relieve pain and stiffness. Heat therapy may be used together with stretching exercises.
  • A support device , such as a brace, cast, or splint, may be used to keep a contracture in a stretched position. The device may be removed every 2 to 3 days so the contracture can be stretched again. The support device will be applied again.
  • Medicines to decrease pain and spasms may be given.
  • Surgery may be done to cut and lengthen tight tendons or ligaments. Joint replacement surgery may also be done.

How can I help prevent a contracture?

  • You may need a splint or other device to hold your limb in the correct position.
  • Regular movement, range of motion, and stretching exercises can help prevent contractures. They can help keep your joints flexible, reduce pain, and improve balance and strength. Ask about the best exercise plan for you.
  • Pain control after an injury or surgery can help you do the range of motion exercises recommended by your healthcare provider. Pain after an injury or surgery may prevent you from regularly moving an affected joint, and lead to a contracture.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your symptoms do not get better or they get worse, even with treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.