A physical therapist helping an elderly woman lift a lightweight.
Physical therapy for arthritis can help to reduce pain, increase mobility and improve sleep.

What to Know About Physical Therapy for Arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common diseases, particularly among older people. It comes in different types, depending on its origin, and in the U.S., nearly 60 million adults and 300,000 children have some form of arthritis. Treatments for arthritis can vary depending on the specific type but often include medications and lifestyle adjustments. However, physical therapy for arthritis is another approach that may be used in certain cases. We’re here to give you all the information you need on physical therapy and how it can be useful for arthritis.

What Types of Arthritis is Physical Therapy Useful For?

Arthritis comes in several major forms:

  • Osteoarthritis. This is the most common form of arthritis. It occurs due to accumulated wear and tear on the joints. As the cartilage wears down within joints, bone begins to rub on bone, leading to pain and swelling
  • Inflammatory arthritis. This is caused by the immune system going awry and attacking the body’s own joints. The precise cause of this inflammatory response is unknown, but genetics, age and lifestyle can all contribute to its development. Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are subcategories of inflammatory arthritis.
  • Metabolic arthritis. This is caused by reduced kidney function, sometimes as the direct result of a poor diet. This is what is referred to commonly as gout.

The Process of Physical Therapy

Physical therapists are licensed professionals with both graduate degrees and clinical experience. Their job is to help diagnose, treat and prevent conditions that affect the body’s ability to move and function in regular life. Most people won’t go to a physical therapist until they are recovering from a specific injury, but physical therapists can also help with arthritis, particularly in cases where the person is experiencing significant loss of mobility, as this often happens in arthritis cases of the larger joints (knees or hips).

Physical therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your physical therapist will work with you to develop an exercise regime that is appropriate to you and your current mobility. They’ll also help you evaluate how you are currently managing your condition and offer suggestions for other treatment approaches. For example, they may recommend a cane or a walker if you are struggling with walking, and they will help show you how to use it correctly. They may also suggest changes in your work setup if your arthritis is aggravated by long hours at a desk or computer.

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An important feature of physical therapy is that after a few initial sessions to set a treatment plan, physical therapy is largely self-directed. In general, your physical therapist will expect you to be practicing your exercises on your own as well as well as keeping track of what works and does not work for you. The sessions are mainly to teach you the skills you need to help yourself further at home. They are not the be-all-end-all.

What Are the Pros and Cons?

Physical therapy may not be effective in every single case, and it should generally be combined with other forms of treatment. However, there are many potential advantages to using physical therapy for arthritis. Some of these include:

  • Reduced pain.
  • Increased mobility.
  • Weight loss in cases where lack of mobility has contributed to weight gain.
  • Improved sleep.
  • Greater knowledge about your arthritis and its triggers.

When practiced by an experienced therapist, physical therapy is noninvasive and comes with very little risk of injury. Thus, there are very few cons to trying physical therapy for arthritis. However, people with severe cases may struggle with pain at the start, which can make it hard to persist in the treatment. Physical therapy can also be time consuming, expensive and take time to see results. Because of this, physical therapy alone may not be enough to treat arthritis, and you should talk to your doctor about incorporating physical therapy with other treatment methods, such as medication or adjustments to diet and exercise routines.

Conclusion: Is Physical Therapy Effective for Arthritis?

Many, if not most people can benefit from physical therapy for arthritis. Since there is little risk involved, there is no reason not to try it if you are struggling with pain and mobility. When the time comes, make sure to stick it out for at least six to eight weeks unless your physical therapist recommends ending sooner. Your insurance may also have limits to the number of physical therapy sessions that are covered under your plan, so this can provide an artificial cutoff as well.

The results of physical therapy take time, but the potential benefits make it more than worth the effort. Talk to your doctor about your options. They will be able to help you find a practice that works for you.