The Benefits of Occupational Therapy
An occupational therapist can provide tips, tools and training to ease the challenges of daily tasks.
By Bryan D. Vargo
If your arthritis causes you to struggle with everyday tasks — from gripping your toothbrush to getting in and out of your car — occupational therapy, or OT, may be the solution. An occupational therapist can help you maximize your ability to do nearly any activity.
“Occupational therapy is really looking at the world through occupation or whatever you need to be as independent as possible in your daily life,” explains Jeanine Beasley, an occupational therapist, certified hand specialist and professor in Grand Valley State University's Occupational Science and Therapy Department.
Beasley also lives with osteoarthritis (OA). She cites the three tenets of occupational therapy as the keys to benefitting from its success: education and training, specific exercises and orthotics, commonly referred to as splints.
Education and Training
An occupational therapist can teach you proper ergonomic principles and joint protection techniques, including how to hold, carry and use your joints during a task, such as using your whole arms and upper body to twist a doorknob rather than twisting it with just your wrist. Providing tips to pain management and pacing your activity to avoid added pain and fatigue, as well as training you how to use assistive devices like a cane or grabber, is also under an OT’s purview. They can also teach you how to adapt the task or modify the environment to your abilities. For example, if twisting a doorknob continues to give you trouble, an occupational therapist may suggest a home modification, e.g., helping you find the right doorknob adapter or switching the knob for a lever style, which can be opened with light pressure; no twisting required.
Another important principle an occupational therapist can teach you is how to conserve your energy throughout the day to combat fatigue, helping you build a daily routine that balances rest with activity so you can do what you need and want to do each day.
Like physical therapy, occupational therapy may also include suggested physical activity to help boost your energy levels or may include specific exercises tailored to reduce the pain of a specific task in a specific joint, like biceps curls to help increase muscle strength and reduce pain and the risk of injury when loading and unloading groceries. Or overhead arm reaches to help stock your cabinets with groceries or to help ease brushing your hair.
While often associated with shoe inserts placed in the footbed of a shoe to increase a shoe’s comfort, orthotics are not limited to the foot or strictly for comfort. Essentially an orthosis is a wearable assistive device that helps correct musculoskeletal alignment of a joint, like a wrist splint for carpal tunnel syndrome. An occupational therapist can make and custom fit an orthotic tailored to your joints to help reduce pain and further destruction or deformity of a joint while also increasing function of that joint. Orthoses are often prescribed to allow a joint to rest at nighttime to help decrease inflammation. The orthotic needed may also depend on the type of arthritis. For example, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or psoriatic arthritis (PSA) — both inflammatory types — affect joints differently than osteoarthritis and will warrant a different orthosis.
An OT’s tips, tools and techniques are designed to help you modify or adapt so you can retain your independence.
“I wish I had an OT give me the patient education I needed early on in my diagnosis,” says Rebecca Gillett, an occupational therapist who has both RA and OA. “Almost two years after I was diagnosed with RA, an OT spent 15 minutes teaching me joint protection principles and it changed my life.”
The same principles can be applied to someone who has arthritis at any age and customized to fit that stage of life, such as a child with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and may be adapted as they age. Occupational therapy for a child with JIA is often needed to support development of their fine motor skills, make custom orthotics and provide adaptations to daily tasks when diagnosed at a young age.
While occupational therapy typically entails a visit to a clinic, OTs can provide home visits and even home evaluations to flag and help remedy safety hazards, as well as provide suggested home modifications or joint protection techniques for a particular task. Home evaluations can be done before or post-surgery to provide temporary solutions, but they also can be done when surgery is not warranted.
Occupational therapists are available at outpatient clinics, hospitals and home-care services. Health insurance, including Medicare and private insurers, typically covers OT; however, a physician’s prescription is usually required. Consult your physician to find an OT near you and ask if they specialize in working with people who have arthritis.