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can physical therapy help arthritis? - Yes, and Here Is How

Arthritis, characterized by inflammation and stiffness of the joints, can significantly affect one's quality of life, restricting mobility and causing chronic pain. If you're among the millions worldwide who experience arthritis, you might be wondering: can physical therapy help? The answer is a resounding yes. Physical therapy can play a pivotal role in managing arthritis symptoms and enhancing joint functionality. Here's how.

Understanding Arthritis

physical therapist measuring joint range of motion in patient with arthritis

Arthritis is not a single disease but a term referring to joint disease or joint pain. The two most common types are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).


is a degenerative condition affecting the cartilage, the cushioning tissue between bones. As cartilage breaks down, bones can rub together, causing pain and stiffness.

Rheumatoid arthritis

an autoimmune disorder, primarily impacts the lining of the joints, causing painful swelling and potential joint deformities in the long term.

Arthritis symptoms generally include joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and decreased range of motion. Severe arthritis can result in chronic pain, inability to perform daily activities, and make it challenging to walk or climb stairs.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Managing Arthritis

Physical therapists employ a range of practical techniques for managing arthritis, emphasizing improved joint mobility, boosted muscle strength, and effective pain control. Let's dive into how these hands-on strategies offer relief:

1. Restoring Your Range of Motion

Arthritis can limit your range of motion, creating roadblocks in your everyday life. The solution? Special exercises known as range of motion (ROM) exercises, specifically designed to maintain and improve your joints' flexibility.

By guiding your joints through their natural span of movement, ROM exercises help increase synovial fluid—the body's natural joint lubricant—thereby easing stiffness and boosting flexibility. Here's what you might expect from a typical ROM exercise session:

  • Passive ROM exercises: If your arthritis is severe, causing intense pain or stiffness, your physical therapist may manually move your joints, gently helping your body regain its range of motion.

  • Active-assistive ROM exercises: If you can move your joint with some effort, but not entirely, your physical therapist will guide you through exercises, supporting you as you move your joint.

  • Active ROM exercises: Once you regain control over your joint movement, your physical therapist will help you perform exercises independently to maintain and further improve flexibility.

With consistent ROM exercises, performing daily tasks can become less of a struggle and more of a breeze.

2. Building Up Strength in Supporting Muscles

man strength training to improve arthritis

Muscle strength matters in managing arthritis. If the muscles around your affected joint weaken, the joint takes on more strain, leading to increased pain and stiffness. Your physical therapist, like a personal trainer tuned into your body's specific needs, can design a custom strengthening program just for you.

These exercises typically target not just the muscles directly surrounding the joint, but also those that indirectly support your joint. For instance, if you're dealing with knee arthritis, your physical therapist may include exercises for your quadriceps, hamstrings, and even your hip and core muscles.

Using resistance exercises, with either your body weight or equipment like resistance bands or weights, your physical therapist will ensure the program fits your abilities and comfort level. Consistent strengthening exercises can help you take the load off your joints, making movement easier and less painful.

3. Effective Pain Management

doctor looking at images of a knee joint with arthritis

Physical therapists have a toolbox full of techniques to help you manage arthritis pain:

  • Heat or cold therapy: Heat can relax your muscles and stimulate blood flow to ease joint stiffness, while cold therapy can help numb acute pain and reduce swelling.

  • Manual therapy: Using their hands, therapists can perform techniques like soft tissue and joint mobilizations to lessen your pain and improve your joint's mobility.

4. Education and Lifestyle Tweaks

Your physical therapist is not just there to guide you through exercises—they're also your coach for better living with arthritis. They can teach you about protecting your joints, conserving your energy, and making modifications at work or home to reduce joint stress.

5. Tools for Extra Support

For severe arthritis cases, physical therapists can recommend and teach you how to use assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, or orthotics, giving you the confidence to navigate your world more comfortably.

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