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Physical and Occupational Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis treatment often includes physical therapy and/or occupational therapy.

Healthy joints are the "hinges" that let us move around and allow us to function every day. Many of us take that for granted. But if your joints are affected by rheumatoid arthritis, these simple movements aren't always automatic or easy.

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It's possible for joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis to be too painful and damaged to use fully. Your treatment team will include a rheumatologist and others. 

  • Physical therapists focus on helping you be able to keep moving around.
  • Occupational therapists help you keep doing things you are used to doing every day. 

The goals and treatments used by physical therapists and occupational therapists sometimes overlap, but there are some general differences.

Physical Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Physical therapy has one simple goal: keeping you moving. It will stimulate muscles, bones, and joints through exercise or other methods. The result is more strength, tone, and overall fitness.

Physical therapists help you with joint function, muscle strength, and fitness level. They understand the mechanics of bones, joints, and muscles working together, the problems that can occur, and what to do about them.

Working with a physical therapist is a good idea at any stage or severity of rheumatoid arthritis. 

  • Early in the course of rheumatoid arthritis, your physical therapist can assess and document where you are in terms of function, strength, and fitness. Your exercise plan will be designed to maximize your chances of avoiding joint problems as the disease progresses.
  • In moderate or advanced rheumatoid arthritis, a physical therapist can help you keep or increase the strength and flexibility you have. 

Together, you and your physical therapist will create a road map of improvement for each muscle/joint group, and for your overall fitness. This will become part of the treatment plan for your rheumatoid arthritis. There are a number of strategies your physical therapist can use to reach your treatment goals. 

  • Exercise. This is the cornerstone of any physical therapy plan. Together with you and your doctor, your physical therapist will design an exercise plan that is targeted to your ability and fitness level. A good plan will include stretching/flexibility exercises; strength exercises, and conditioning (or aerobic) exercise.
  • Heat/Ice. Treating inflamed or painful joints with heat or ice packs helps some people feel better.
  • Massage. In some patients with chronic pain, therapeutic massage reduces symptoms.
  • Motivation and encouragement. While "low-tech," it's hard to overestimate the value of having someone in your corner cheering you on-and pushing you to do better.
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