Skip to main content

Contractures

Contractures

Definition

Contractures are the chronic loss of joint motion due to structural changes in non-bony tissue. These non-bony tissues include muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Description

Contractures can occur at any joint of the body. This joint dysfunction may be a result of immobilization from injury or disease; nerve injury, such as spinal cord damage and stroke; or muscle, tendon, or ligament disease.

Causes and symptoms

There are a number of pathologies and diseases that can lead to joint contractures. The primary causes resulting in a joint contraction are muscle imbalance, pain, prolonged bed rest, and immobilization. Because of the frequency of fractures and surgery, immobilization is the most frequent cause of joint contractures. Symptoms include a significant loss of motion to any specific joint that results in immobility. If the contracture is of a significant degree, pain can result even without any voluntary joint movement.

Diagnosis

Manual testing of joint mobility by a healthcare professional skilled in joint mobilization techniques (e.g., a physical therapist) will identify indications of restricted structures within the joint. Measuring the motion of the joint with a device termed a "goniometer" can be useful if the decrease of motion can be shown to be a proven result of a joint contracture. X rays can be of some benefit in the diagnosis of contractures, because a visible decrease in joint space may indicate a tight, contracted joint. Most physicians will make the diagnosis after a thorough physical examination involving physical and manual testing of the joint motion.

Treatment

Manual techniques

Joint mobilization and stretching of soft tissues is a common technique used to increase joint elasticity. Structures are stretched in similar directions to those which take place upon normal joint motion. Some healthcare professionals may use some form of heat prior to the stretching and mobilization. If appropriate, exercise may follow manual techniques to help maintain the additional motion achieved.

Mechanical techniques

Devices known as continuous passive motion machines are very popular, especially following surgery of joints. Continuous passive motion machines (CPM) are specifically adjusted to each individual's need. This method is administered within the first 24-72 hours after the injury or surgery. The joint is mechanically moved through the patient's tolerable motion. CPM machines have been proved to accelerate the return motion process, allowing patients more function in less time.

Casting or splinting

Casting or splinting techniques are used to provide a constant stretch to the soft tissues surrounding a joint. It is most effective when used to increase motion of a joint from prolonged immobilization. It is also popular for treating contractures resulting from an increase in muscle tone from nerve injury. After an initial holding cast is applied for seven to 10 days, a series of positional casts are applied at weekly intervals. Before the application of each new cast, the joint is moved as much as can be tolerated by the patient, and measured by a goniometer. When as much motion as possible is obtained after stretching, another final cast is applied to maintain the newly acquired motion.

Surgery

In some cases, the contracture may be severe and not respond to conservative treatment. In this event, manipulation of the joint under a general anesthesia may be necessary.

KEY TERMS

Mobilization Making movable, restoring the power of motion in a joint. Movement which increases joint mobility.

Muscle tone Also termed tonus; the normal state of balanced tension in the tissues of the body, especially the muscles.

Alternative treatment

In some areas of the body, chiropractic techniques have been found to be useful to improve motion. Massage therapy can be beneficial by promoting additional circulation to joint structures, causing better elasticity. Yoga can help prevent as well as rehabilitate a contracture and can facilitate the return of joint mobility.

Prognosis

Prognosis of contractures will depend upon the cause of the contracture. In general, the earlier the treatment for the contracture begins, the better the prognosis.

Prevention

Prevention of contractures and deformities from spinal cord injury, fracture, and immobilization is achieved through a program of positioning, splinting if appropriate, and range-of-motion exercises either manually or mechanically aided. These activities should be started as early as possible for optimal results.

Resources

ORGANIZATIONS

The American College of Rheumatology. 1800 Century Place, Suite 250, Atlanta, GA 30345. (404) 633-3777. http://www.rheumatology.org.

American Physical Therapy Association. 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314. (800) 999-2782. https://www.apta.org.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Contractures." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Contractures." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contractures

"Contractures." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contractures

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.