Choosing PT for Osteoarthritis

By: Misty Woltman, PT

Exercise has many health benefits, but for people with osteoarthritis exercise is not always the first thing that comes to mind.  People who suffer from osteoarthritis often have pain and stiffness;  moving hurts so exercise may fill them with dread.

Osteoarthritis is very common and your risk for developing it increases with age.  Other risk/predisposing factors include genetics, occupational daily repetitive motions/positions, history of previous injury, obesity, and gender (females>males).

If you have not been diagnosed with osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD-another term for arthritis) common symptoms include stiffness in the morning or after prolonged periods of inactivity, pain, clicking/popping/cracking in your joint, decreased motion/flexibility, increased difficulty completing your daily activities. 

There is no cure for osteoarthritis and it typically worsens over time.  There are several treatment options to manage your pain, including medication, injections, joint replacement and physical therapy.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, exercise has been found to be one of the most effective treatments for people with osteoarthritis. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) states there is a lot of high quality research that show the benefits of exercise in decreasing pain and improving motion.  Dr. Laith Jazrawi, an orthopedic surgeon and chief of sports medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City as quoted by the Arthritis Foundation.  “We know that compared to people who are sedentary, patients who are more active have less pain and better function.”

Often patients are not sure where to begin or get discouraged when they start an exercise program due to the pain.  Your range of motion and strength limitations may limit your ability to progress or tolerate an exercise program which will ultimately decrease your compliance/adherence.  Patients often want to lose weight to decrease the stress on their arthritic joints, but due to the pain they quit an exercise program.  This is where physical therapy can help.

Physical therapy can assist you in pain management, improving strength and range of motion and determine the best type of exercise program for you, depending on the severity of your arthritis.  Frequently, people have lost motion and strength in the muscles surrounding the joint affected due to inactivity.  Physical therapy can often restore/improve range of motion and strength which will decrease the stress on your joint, thus decreasing pain.  Once your strength and motion have improved, you can begin and better adhere to an exercise program which will help you improve your cardiovascular health, manage/lose weight and maintain your gains from therapy.  Physical therapy can help postpone surgery or injections as well as improve your tolerance to your daily activities. 

If surgery is your best option per your surgeon’s recommendation, physical therapy can help prepare you for surgery.   It is very beneficial to improve your motion and strength prior to a joint replacement as it often makes your recovery easier and allow for the best outcome. 

As a clinician, I have seen many patients that have been referred to therapy for their arthritis and they are often skeptical as to how we can help them.  More often than not, my patients are pleasantly surprised at the results.  Knowing where to start and maintaining the improvements is the hard part, this is where the guidance of a physical therapist can provide you some support. 

If you have been diagnosed with or believe you have osteoarthritis and are not sure what to do or where to begin, consider physical therapy.  We would be happy to help guide you. 

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