There are over 100 different types of arthritis; however, osteoarthritis is by far the most common, affecting over 21 million people in the United States. Osteoarthritis is most common in older adults. It is caused by wear and tear of our joints. Cartilage is broken down over years of joint use. This cartilage provides a cushion between bones and gives a slick surface, allowing bones to glide over one another with reduced friction. When cartilage is worn away, bone rubs on bone, causing changes in the joint including swelling, and bony overgrowth. This causes severe chronic pain, decreased joint mobility, and disability. While age is a primary risk factor for the disease, other risk factors include being female, history of joint injury, repetitive use of joints, family history of arthritis, and being overweight.
Treatment of osteoarthritis includes, medication, surgery, joint protection, and physical therapy. Physical therapists can help the arthritic patient in numerous ways, including the use of heat and modalities, the fitting of braces or insoles, weight reduction, joint protection education, home and lifestyle modifications, and with the use of exercise to improve strength, joint mobility, and flexibility. Exercise is often perceived as painful by the arthritic patient, but an appropriate exercise program can help improve physical function and improve the person’s ability to perform daily activities. The physical therapist will evaluate the patient and help the patient develop an individualized exercise program based on that patient’s limitations. The exercise program will be gradually modified as appropriate as the patient improves. The physical therapist will also use modalities as needed to treat symptoms so the patient may be more successful in progressing through his or her exercise program. Joint protection and modifying daily activities help to reduce the stress and strain on joints. The physical therapist can make suggestions for that specific patient as to how he or she can make modifications in his or her household or make recommendations for adaptive equipment or assistive devices the patient can use to reduce stress to a joint.
Exercise benefits the arthritic patient in numerous ways including increasing energy levels, helping to control body weight, increasing bone and muscle strength, and improving the health of joint surfaces by facilitating the movement of nutrients and waste products into and out of the joint. Range of motion exercises help to reduce joint stiffness and keep joints mobile. Improving muscle strength helps to support joints and reduce pressures. Endurance exercises help to improve physical strength and reduce arthritic symptoms.
While exercises have been shown to be very beneficial for arthritic patients, the type and amount of exercise will vary between individuals and should be chosen carefully. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you to design a program based on the type of arthritis affecting you, the joints that are involved, the amount of inflammation present, the stability of the joints involved, and the physical limitations you have. You should consult a qualified healthcare professional prior to starting an exercise program. There may be some exercises that could cause further joint damage and that should be avoided.