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5 Steps to Make Physical Therapy Work for Your RA

By Jeannette Moninger
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

Doing physical therapy exercises can help your RA by making you stronger and more flexible. That can help you feel better.

"When you get up and move, you'll actually have less pain and more energy," says Brett Cook, a physical therapist at Independence Rehab in Sandy, Utah.

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Cook knows what he's talking about, and not just because of his medical background. At the age of 1, he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. "I understand the pain and fatigue of living with RA," Cook says. "I also know firsthand that physical therapy for RA vastly improves one's quality of life."

Follow these five suggestions from Cook and other RA experts to make physical therapy a successful part of your rheumatoid arthritis treatment.

1. Work With a Pro

Ask your rheumatologist to recommend a physical therapist who has experience working with people with rheumatoid arthritis.

"We can create an individualized physical therapy program based on your RA symptoms and disease progression," says Jim Long, senior physical therapist at Cleveland Clinic's Lutheran Hospital.

A physical therapist can also make sure you're doing the exercises correctly and show you new ones to try, so you'll be less likely to get frustrated and give up.

2. Adopt a "No Excuses" Policy for Physical Therapy

If you're tempted to say, "I hurt too much today. I'll do my exercises tomorrow," don't give up. Instead, work a different, less painful part of your body.

For instance, if your knees are your most painful joint, "do some seated wrist and arm exercises like bicep curls," Cook says. Warm-water exercises are also good because the water's buoyancy relieves pressure on your joints, and the warmth is soothing.

As with any kind of exercise program, you're more likely to do it if you make a habit of doing it at the same time every day. Schedule your workout time on a calendar and treat it just like you would a doctor's appointment. Don't cancel!

3. Stiff Joints? Turn Up the Heat

Mornings can be tough since joints get stiff overnight. A warm shower does more than wake you up -- it also serves as your therapeutic warm-up. Moist heat increases muscle relaxation, boosts blood supply to the painful area, and relieves muscle spasms.

"I'm more likely to follow through on my physical therapy exercises once the water's soothed me," says Audrey Sawyer Mills, who has RA. Her home in Houston is equipped with a hot tub, whirlpool sauna, and a shower rail.

4. Include Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise is an essential part of physical therapy for RA. "Weight-bearing activities build and strengthen bone while reducing your risk of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes that often accompany rheumatoid arthritis," Long says.

Pair up with a walking partner or sign up for a class for people with arthritis. "You're less likely to bail on an activity if you know others are counting on you to show up," Long says.

Check with your local Arthritis Foundation office to find a health club near you that offers arthritis-friendly exercise programs including aquatic, tai chi, yoga, and walking activities.

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