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How Your Physical Therapist Can Help You Manage Your Arthritis Symptoms

Each year, May is recognized as National Arthritis Awareness Month and aims to raise awareness about the growing prevalence of arthritis – a condition that impacts more than 50 million Americans. It also focuses on the need for effective research and advocacy and to encourage the millions of adults with arthritis to engage in regular physical activity to improve joint health. 

Contrary to popular belief, arthritis is not a single disease – it is the term used to describe a collection of around 200 rheumatic conditions that affect the joints, the tissues that surround the joint, and other connective tissues, causing joint pain or inflammation. Due to the number of seniors who have been diagnosed with some form of arthritis, it is known as the leading cause of disability in America and one of the most widespread conditions in our society today. 

If you struggle with the effects of arthritis, there are simple yet effective steps you can take to conquer this condition and alleviate symptoms. Those important steps include learning the facts about arthritis, understanding what it means for you and your body, and incorporating physical therapy into your lifestyle to help you along your journey. 

Common Types of Arthritis and How They Affect the Joints

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. It is sometimes referred to as degenerative joint disease, or “wear-and-tear” arthritis, as it leads to inflammation and the breakdown of cartilage around the joints, such as the knees, hip, and shoulders. This breakdown can happen due to increased age, genetic predisposition, joint injury, or overuse. Because cartilage acts as a lubricant, allowing your joints to move fluidly, the gradual breakdown of cartilage can cause the painful sensation felt when a bone rubs against another bone.

The second most common type of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune condition in which your immune system attacks healthy cells, causing painful inflammation in the joints. Although rheumatoid arthritis may start with sporadic pain caused by flare-ups, the pain becomes chronic due to the damage inflammation does to your joint tissue.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Managing Your Arthritis Symptoms

If you’re like many other seniors who have been recently diagnosed with arthritis or have been living with the condition for some time, you understand its painful symptoms and limitations – inflamed, swollen, and stiff joints, and even the loss of motion. You also understand that being able to pursue a physically active lifestyle as you age is essential. Physical therapists also recognize the impact of arthritis and what you are experiencing daily – as your guide, their main goals are to diagnose your condition and provide treatment to help you manage your symptoms. They begin by examining your joints to gauge the status of your joint health, then work with you to develop a plan that improves movement, reduces pain, restores joint function, and prevents long-term disability. 

If your ultimate goal is to ease your arthritis symptoms to develop and maintain the energy, strength, and mobility necessary to perform daily tasks and activities, consider partnering with a physical therapist to assess your current state and help you achieve your long-term goals.

Here are some of the focus areas your physical therapist can support you with:

Joint Motion and Strength

Since one of the primary symptoms of arthritis is a loss of mobility in your joints, your physical therapist can provide specific instructions on how you can maintain or increase your mobility. They can also identify areas of joint weakness or deterioration and help you to strengthen the muscles around your joints, which can alleviate joint friction and pain. Improving your joint motion and strength are some of the first steps in regaining your ability to participate in daily activities with ease.

Incorporating Regular Exercise and Fitness into Your Daily Life

Although it may sound painful to exercise when you have arthritis, low-impact physical activity has been shown to improve arthritis symptoms. Focus on “joint-friendly” activities that help you manage your symptoms, like walking, biking, or water aerobics, rather than exercises that aggravate your symptoms. Your physical therapist will be able to suggest exercises that help to alleviate symptoms and answer your questions about how much and what types of activity match your abilities and health goals.

Developing Proper Body Mechanics and Posture

Sometimes, pain can be intensified by improper body mechanics (or the way your muscle movement helps you maintain proper posture). By consistently practicing proper posture, you can work to relieve your joints of unnecessary pressure and stress in the long-term. Also, by focusing on correct movement, you can incorporate more varieties of movement into your daily routine while experiencing less pain.

Modifying Your Environment

Since joint pain from arthritis can be aggravated by overuse, a good practice is to evaluate your environment and the activities you partake in on a regular basis. Your physical therapist may be able to suggest changes, such as using an ergonomic chair while working at a desk, standing on a cushioned mat when cooking or washing dishes, or warming up your muscles and joints before gardening.

The keys to success when managing your arthritis symptoms are gaining knowledge about your condition, setting realistic goals, consistently following your physical therapy treatment plan, and remaining dedicated to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Change and improvement can happen in small increments over time, allowing your body to become stronger and more proficient at performing daily activities. You may even alleviate some of your symptoms or slow the progress of your arthritis. Managing your symptoms today leads to a more mobile and improved quality of life – one of the many priceless benefits of physical therapy.

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