Physical Therapy for Arthritis

A physical therapist can develop a movement plan to help keep you active. 

Physical therapy (PT) can help you get moving safely and effectively. Physical therapists are licensed professionals with graduate degrees and clinical experience who examine, diagnose and treat or help prevent conditions that limit the body's ability to move and function in daily life, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). 

Physical therapy focuses on the body’s ability to engage in movement. Movement can be anything from getting in and out of chairs to climbing stairs, walking in your neighborhood, playing a sport or doing recreational activities. 

What Are the Goals of Physical Therapy? 

For arthritis, goals typically include: 

  • Improving the mobility and restoring the use of affected joints,  
  • Increasing strength to support the joints,  
  • Maintaining fitness, 
  • Preserving the ability to perform daily activities.  

What Can a Physical Therapist Do For You? 

To start, an individualized plan of exercises is developed. These exercises are designed to improve flexibility, strength, coordination and balance to achieve optimal physical function. Physical therapists:  

  • Teach you proper posture and body mechanics for common daily activities to relieve pain and improve function. 
  • Show you how to properly use assistive devices such as walkers and canes. 
  • Recommend different treatment options, such as braces and splints to support joints, shoe inserts to relieve stress on the lower extremities, and hot and cold therapy to ease joint pain and stiffness. 
  • Suggest modifications to your environment, such as ergonomic chairs or a cushioned mat in your kitchen, to relieve pain and improve function. 

What Does a Physical Therapy Session Look Like? 

The goal of a physical therapy session is to teach you how to do things in your treatment plan – such as performing certain exercises, or how to best use hot and cold compresses – for yourself. The visits are often short – about an hour – and focus on identifying problems with your physical function and giving you strategies for care that you can do at home. 

When visiting the PT, think clearly about what your complaint is and what you would like to be able to do after physical therapy. Your goal can be getting in and out of your car without pain, raising up on your toes or raising your arms to reach items in your kitchen cabinets, taking a walk or performing your job without pain in the hips, knees and feet, or even walking or running a 5K. Your PT can then work with you to develop a plan that is right for you to achieve your goals. 

In most cases, you don’t need to see the PT every week. Periodic visits every few months are sufficient to update your program if necessary. When you experience a change in your health – such as a flare in your arthritis that causes you to fall behind in your exercise program or involvement of a different joint that affects another area of function – you can return to the physical therapist to update your exercise program and treatment strategy. 

The key to a successful outcome is learning the exercises from a physical therapist and practicing them at home over the long term. Improvement is gradual – the body gets stronger and more adept slowly over time – so consistent practice is essential. 

How to Find a Physical Therapist? 

If you are interested in seeing a PT, ask your doctor for a recommendation. You may not need a doctor’s referral to see a PT, but check with your insurance to make sure it will be covered. Your insurance may also limit the number of sessions for a particular problem, so make sure you know this information before you see a PT. 

You can also check with a reputable medical center in your area or visit the American Physical Therapy Association’s PT locator tool where you can search for a physical therapist by zip code and practice area. Once you have identified a few potential therapists, call their offices and ask questions such as whether the therapist has experience working with your particular type of arthritis or your particular joint or functional problem. 

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