How is arthritis treated?

Treatment of arthritis will depend on the type of arthritis, how strong the pain is and the patient’s overall health. The goal is to treat all aspects of arthritis pain, increase joint mobility (movement) and strength, and help patients learn to manage pain.

Treatment options include medicine, exercise, heat/cold, use of joint protection and surgery. Treatment plans might include more than one of these treatments. As part of a comprehensive plan for arthritis treatment, your doctor might also prescribe occupational and physical therapy, which can provide additional help in your recovery.

How can occupational therapists help you treat your arthritis?

Occupational therapists can teach you how to reduce strain on your joints during daily activities. They can show you how to modify your home and workplace environments to reduce motions that might aggravate arthritis. Occupational therapists can also provide splints for your hands or wrists, and recommend assistive devices to help you drive, bathe, dress, keep house, and do other tasks.

How can physical therapists help you treat your arthritis?

Physical therapists can teach you:

  • Exercises designed to preserve the mobility, strength, and use of your joints
  • Proper body mechanics to move from one position to another
  • Proper mechanics during the performance of your daily activities
  • Correct posture to protect the integrity of the joints
  • How to use walking aids such as crutches, a walker, or cane when needed

For patients with mild to moderate knee or ankle arthritis, your therapist may recommend a functional knee or ankle brace that will support your joint, allowing more freedom with daily activities such as walking, hiking, and golfing.

What are the goals of arthritis treatment using physical therapy?

Your physical therapist will tailor a program to your specific needs, whether your arthritic problems are widespread or confined to one joint or body area.

The goals of treatment are to:

  • Prevent loss of use of the joints
  • Restore abilities that may have been lost
  • Help you adapt to new activity levels
  • Maintain your fitness
  • Maintain your ability to take part in the activities you choose with minimal help from others

Therapy should be started early in order to reduce painful symptoms of inflammation, prevent deformity and permanent joint stiffness, and maintain strength in the surrounding muscles. When pain and swelling are better controlled, treatment plans may include exercises to increase range of motion, and to improve muscle strength and endurance.

What are some therapeutic methods of using occupational therapy or physical therapy to treat arthritis?

  • Exercise. This is an important part of arthritis treatment that is most effective when done properly every day. Your therapist will prescribe a program for you that will vary as your needs change.
  • Thermal modalities. Applying ice packs or heating pads can help relieve pain locally. Heat can help relax muscle spasms or taking a warm bath or shower before exercising might help you exercise more easily.
  • Therapy for joint surgery patients. Preoperative programs of education and exercise, started before surgery in the outpatient therapy department, are continued at home. They might be changed in the hospital after surgery to fit new needs in the rehabilitation period. These exercises might be added to your usual exercise regimen, and you might find your ability to exercise has improved after surgery.
  • Joint protection techniques. You can reduce the stress on joints affected by arthritis while participating in daily activities.
    • Some ways to do this:
    • A therapist can show you ways to do everyday tasks without worsening pain or producing joint damage. Joint protection techniques can help you:
    • Use proper body mechanics to get in and out of a car, chair or tub, as well as for lifting objects.
  • Assistive devices. Many assistive devices have been developed to make activities easier and less stressful for the joints and muscles. Your therapist will suggest devices that will be helpful for tasks you might have found difficult at home or work. A few examples of helpful devices include a bath stool in the shower or tub; grab bars around the toilet or tub; and long-handled shoehorns and sock grippers. Your therapist can direct you to catalogs that offer a wide variety of assistive devices you can order.
  • Functional bracing: In some cases of mild to moderate knee and ankle arthritis, bracing can provide improved stability, unloading of the painful joint, and increased comfort for activities such as walking, stairs, and recreational activities such as golfing and hiking.

What are some benefits of occupational and physical therapy programs for arthritis?

Physical therapy programs may provide:

  • Exercises aimed at restoring normal joint mobility or flexibility
  • Exercises aimed at restoring normal strength
  • Education on whether you are safe to walk with or without an assistive device
  • Postural education and activity modifications to relieve discomfort and improve performance
  • Assessment for functional bracing of the affected joint

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/05/2016.

References

  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: Arthritis and Rheumatic Diseases. Accessed 2/17/2020.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Arthritis: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Accessed 2/17/2020.
  • National Institute on Aging: Arthritis Advice. Accessed 2/17/2020.
  • Barbour KE, Helmick CG, Theis KA, et al. Prevalence of Doctor-Diagnosed Arthritis and Arthritis-Attributable Activity Limitation — United States, 2010–2012. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2013;62(44):869-873. PubMed PMID: 24196662.

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