Physical therapy is designed to help keep you moving safely and effectively, and it is a powerful form of treatment for a range of conditions, including some forms of arthritis. While there is no cure for the inflammation in the joints that causes arthritis, the condition can be controlled with pain management and prevention of further degradation. Through a series of exercises and lifestyle adjustments, physical therapy can help those who suffer from arthritis to engage in movement better and for longer.
Arthritis Is Not Just One Condition
Despite being used as an umbrella term, arthritis is actually not a single disease. Instead, it is an informal way of referring to joint pain or joint diseases. There are over 100 types of arthritis, all with their own symptoms and causes. However, all forms of arthritis can be painful or lead to a loss in quality of life, especially when they aren’t treated properly.
The most common form of arthritis is degenerative arthritis, such as osteoarthritis. In this case, the slick cushioning surface on the ends of your bones, known as cartilage, wears away and allows the bones to rub against each other. This leads to pain, swelling, and stiffness in the short term and the loss of joint strength over time.
Early symptoms of arthritis can be managed with regular physical activity, hot and cold therapies, and over-the-counter pain medication, but the pain will usually become chronic over time. Motion may eventually become limited enough to negatively impact your quality of life.
The Goals of Physical Therapy
Physical therapy focuses on the body’s ability to engage in movement. Depending on the reason for beginning physical therapy, this movement can range from something as simple as sitting down to athletic abilities like running long distances. With arthritis, anything involving an affected joint can be the subject of your therapy.
Specific goals for arthritis-related physical therapy may include improving mobility and restoring the use of affected joints, increasing strength to support the joints, maintaining fitness, and preserving the ability to perform daily activities. You may also be able to improve balance and posture while using or not using assistive devices as prescribed.
Maintain or Increase Joint Range of Motion
Stiffness in the joints is one of the primary symptoms of osteoarthritis. By restoring the ability to bend and straighten your joint easily, joint function can be improved. Even small, incremental improvements to this function can make a huge difference in your day-to-day life. For example, the ability to bend an arthritic knee just 10 more degrees may be what allows you to get in and out of a chair.
Strengthen the Muscles that Support Joints
As the cartilage in joints is worn away, it can cause painful friction between the bones in that joint. One way to prevent this friction is to ensure the surrounding muscles are strong. A physical therapist will be able to identify any areas of impairment and teach you functional exercises to strengthen these areas, offering more stability in the joints.
Improve Balance and Posture
The muscle weakness, decreased joint function, and loss of mobility brought on by osteoarthritis can cause impaired balance. Physical therapy may include ways to address this, which reduces the risk of falling and further damaging joints. Additionally, improvements to your posture can help with balance and take pressure off of your joints, slowing down the progression of disease.
Learn to Use Assistive Devices
A doctor may recommend you use walkers, canes, crutches, splints, or shoe inserts to reduce pressure on particular joints. While these can be helpful, the use of these tools is not always easy to adjust to, and it is not always clear when they should be used. A physical therapist can teach you the proper way to use assistive devices while still fostering the goal of your functional independence.
Your physical therapist will also help you understand your arthritis better so that you can make informed decisions moving forward. When you gain knowledge about how your joints work and how arthritis impacts this function, you will be better able to treat it and choose activities that facilitate healing.
What to Expect in Physical Therapy for Arthritis
A physical therapist will design a treatment plan based on your arthritis: where it is in your body, how severe it is, and what your goals are for the future. Once this plan is set, the goal of each session will be to help you perform these activities safely and teach you to maintain them moving forward. Each session will be around an hour and focus on identifying problems with your current physical function, then giving you strategies to care for them at home.
You may begin physical therapy with visits regularly, such as on a weekly basis, to help you become comfortable with the treatment protocol. From there, your visits may be moved to a more periodic schedule like every few months. Any time you experience a change to your health, such as a flare-up of arthritis or new pain in another joint, you should return to adjust your treatment plan and take proactive steps. Active and supervised treatment is often the best practice when it comes to knee and hip arthritis specifically.
While the major components of physical therapy are simple exercises, other modes of therapy are commonly used for arthritis. Aquatic therapy is particularly common because being in the water takes the pressure off your joints, allowing for exercise without pain.
Before any visit to the physical therapist, it can help to think clearly about what is physically bothering you that week, as well as what your goals might be to manage that problem. You may simply want to be able to reach for items in a kitchen cabinet, or you may wish to return to a physical activity like riding a bicycle. One benefit of physical therapy is that the protocol is always tailored to your specific needs.
Other Treatment Options
While the research is clear that physical therapy is a beneficial treatment for osteoarthritis, it is best used as one piece of a larger treatment plan. Different forms of arthritis, varying severity and locations, as well as a patient’s medical history, may all indicate a need for additional options such as steroid injections for pain management or the use of more invasive methods such as surgery. Your medical team will be the best people to decide what forms of physical therapy meet your needs.