There are two kinds of arthritis. The most common form is called Osteoarthritis (OA) which is the result of mechanical stress on our joint cartilage from the wear and tear of life. The other type is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) which only occurs in about 1% of Americans and happens when the immune system attacks joints.
OA happens in our weight-bearing joints. As we age we all will experience some degree of joint breakdown, but some people experience more symptoms than others depending on occupation, hobbies, past injuries, body weight and age. A hallmark of OA is pain and stiffness in the morning and after being sedentary for long periods of time but improves with about 30 minutes of being up and moving. Knees, hips, shoulders and the spine are quite common areas to experience osteoarthritis.
RA often involves several joints and is often associated with fatigue, general discomfort, redness and warmth of that joint. Symptom onset can be at any point during the lifespan, but is mostly commonly diagnosed during midlife by a doctor specializing in rheumatological issues.
Physical therapy can be a very effective treatment approach for both OA and RA, although the therapy methods used for patients with OA will be quite different than patients with RA. While it is true that physical therapy can’t change a bone spur or worn/inflamed cartilage, it can provide a great deal of relief through improving joint mobility, strength in muscles surrounding the involved joint, balance and general fitness. A physical therapist can instruct patients in an exercise program for weight loss, self-care and strategies to adjust work environments, all of which will reduce stress on an arthritic joint.
Severe cares of arthritis may require surgery, but often patients who suspect they may need surgery are pleasantly surprised after a course of physical therapy and feel able to proceed without such a major intervention.
For more information on arthritis, the American Physical Therapy Association’s website is a good place to start.