Osteoarthritis Physical Therapy: Finding Safe, Effective Activities

Find out if osteoarthritis physical therapy is right for you. With the right help, you can exercise your sore joints and improve mobility.

Although getting up and moving may be the last thing you feel like doing when your joints are sore and stiff, regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to ease osteoarthritis pain and maintain mobility. Regular exercise can reduce symptoms such as stress and anxiety you may experience from living with osteoarthritis (OA). By improving your balance and increasing strength and flexibility it can also reduce your risk of falls. Furthermore, exercising during the day can help you sleep at night, which may be difficult if pain or stiffness keeps you awake. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with OA recently or are just starting an exercise program for osteoarthritis pain relief, physical therapist Maura Daily Iversen recommends you start by seeing a physical therapist. 

“We can do a full musculoskeletal evaluation and use that information to help determine what exercises are best,” says Iversen, dean of the College of Health Professions and Professor of Public Health and Human Movement Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. A physical therapist (PT) can also ensure you are performing an exercise in the best position for your body. This can be important if you have joint malalignment, which could cause you to overstrain an aspect of the joint, Iversen says.

In some cases, a physical therapist will prescribe therapeutic exercises, which are performed in a specific manner based on your particular strengths and limitations, she says. A PT will prescribe exercises and train you to perform them correctly. 

Important Forms of Exercise for Osteoarthritis

Whether you are working with a PT or exercising on your own, your exercise program for OA should include the following forms of exercise: 

Range of motion. Range of motion refers to the ability to move your joints through the full motion they were designed to achieve. These exercises, such as exercises for arthritic shoulders, include gentle stretching and movements that take joints through their full span. Doing these exercises regularly can help maintain and improve the flexibility in the joints. 

Strengthening. These exercises performed with weights, bands even your own bodyweight working against gravity, maintain and improve muscle strength. Strong muscles can support and protect joints affected by OA. 

Aerobic. These exercises — such as walking, bicycling, swimming or using the elliptical machine — strengthen the heart and make the lungs more efficient. Aerobic exercise also reduces fatigue and builds stamina, while helping reduce or maintain body weight, which can increase pressure on joints. 

Best Physical Activities for Osteoarthritis 

Although almost any exercise is better than none for joints with osteoarthritis, some types are better than others. Depending on the joints affected and how severely they are affected, some types of activity such as jogging, high-impact aerobics or basketball, which can jar the joints or put them at risk of twisting, have the potential to cause more joint damage. A physical therapist can tell you if certain activities present a risk for you.

Some specific types of activity have been proven to help arthritis. Many of these, including the following, have been incorporated into arthritis-specific exercise programs, some offered by the Arthritis Foundation. 

Walking. Because of its ease, no need for special equipment and range of health benefits, walking is one of the most popular forms of exercise for people with osteoarthritis. You should shoot for 30 to 60 minutes a day for optimal benefits. Try to walk every day at a moderate intensity — at a pace of two to three miles per hour. If you are just starting a walking program, try breaking your walks in to 10-minute intervals. Start by walking slowly and build your speed and distance over time. 

Aquatic Exercise. Although they are performed in water, aquatic exercises do not involve swimming. Instead, they are performed in about shoulder-height water.  The water’s buoyancy helps relieve the pressure of your body’s weight on the affected joints (hips and knees in particular), while providing resistance for your muscles to get stronger. Regular aquatic exercise can help relieve pain and improve daily function in people with hip and knee OA.

Tai Chi. With its gentle, fluid movements, this centuries-old martial art is a natural arthritis workout. Tai chi’s meditative aspects are helpful for reducing stress and anxiety. Its moves have been shown to promote balance, strength and range of motion. And a study released by researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, found that tai chi could specifically reduce the pain and physical impairment of people with severe knee OA. 

Yoga. A set of theories and practices with origins in ancient India, yoga focuses on unifying the mind, body and spirit, and fostering a greater feeling of connection between the individual and their surroundings. Practicing yoga improves flexibility, postural alignment, strength, endurance and balance as well as promoting relaxation. There are numerous styles of yoga, many of which may prove difficult or too advanced for some people with arthritis. When choosing a specific yoga program or style, be sure the practice and the instructor are appropriate for you and include modifications that meet your goals and needs. 

Although all of these exercises and others are safe and beneficial for most people with osteoarthritis, everyone is different. If you experience increased pain after exercise that persists more than a day or two, or if your OA makes any type of exercise difficult, a physical therapist can teach you specific ways to exercise or develop an exercise plan that is right for you.

To learn more, listen to podcasts about physical activity and arthritis. 

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