Why Does Physical Therapy for Arthritis Help?


In searching for ways to treat arthritis pain, many people think that a shot or surgery is required. While a corticosteroid like cortisone may be needed — and even surgery in rare cases — an orthopedic expert will rarely jump to those treatments without physical therapy, or until a patient has undergone physical therapy first.

Physical therapy can be great treatment for helping to rehabilitate from injuries, but it also helps alleviate the stiffness, pain and mobility issues associated with arthritis.

Why is physical therapy important?

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the goals of physical therapy treatment are:

  • Diagnosing and treating movement dysfunction
  • Enhancing physical and functional abilities
  • Promoting optimal physical function, wellness, fitness and quality of life
  • Preventing the onset, symptoms and worsening of impairments, movement limitations and disabilities that may result from diseases, disorders, conditions or injuries

An orthopedic physical therapist can help create a program that helps regain the movement and range of motion in affected joints. Depending on factors like age, fitness, affected joints and more, an orthopedic physical therapist will help determine a course of exercise and other related treatments to help improve joint function and alleviate pain with proper posture and movement. If you need to use an assistive device, such as a walker or cane, a physical therapist can help you with proper use.

A therapist may also use manipulation and other methods, like hot and cold therapy, to ease symptoms. Your therapist may even help you determine how to modify your home or work to help relieve pain and improve the function of your joints. Ergonomic furniture or cushioned mats, for example, might help protect the affected joints.

Osteoarthritis and physical therapy

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting 27 million Americans. It primarily affects the articular cartilage and bone in a joint, and those who have it can benefit greatly from physical therapy for arthritis.

The degeneration of the cartilage and bone caused by osteoarthritis can lead to pain and ultimately increased difficulty with daily activities. There is currently no known cure for osteoarthritis, but exercise has been proven to reduce pain related to the condition and improve impaired muscle function. Because physical therapists are well trained in musculoskeletal system and the ailments that affect it, they can combine skilled, hands on intervention with therapeutic exercise to get those with osteoarthritis back on track to a healthy, active life.

How does a corticosteroid shot help with physical therapy?

It can be hard to imagine doing physical therapy exercises if you have arthritis pain that makes movements required of daily activities like walking, climbing the stairs, bending over or typing on a computer difficult. If this is the case, your orthopedic doctor may also prescribe a corticosteroid — or cortisone — injection to ease your pain and allow you to begin engaging a regimen of physical therapy for arthritis.

Cortisone shots — injected into the affected area — can provide a window of pain relief that will allow you to get the maximum benefit for physical therapy. Its anti-inflammatory properties help reduce pain. Cortisone may offer relief from symptoms for anywhere between days or weeks and several months. Gel injections, or hyaluronic acid supplements, are another type of shot that can last for several weeks to more than a year.

What is a typical physical therapy regimen?

On average, patients typically see their physical therapists two times a week, depending on your previous level of fitness and how your symptoms are presenting.

In order for a patient with arthritis to see long lasting effects from physical therapy, a typical plan of care will last anywhere from four to six weeks. This period allows for adequate initiation and progression of an exercise program and other skilled interventions, such has soft tissue mobilizations or joint mobilizations to maximize strength and range of motion.

The amount of physical therapy Medicare or your insurance carrier covers may vary, so contact your provider for information.

What kind of improvements can patients see with physical therapy?

Studies have shown that exercise programs lasting at least 12 weeks — with well documented adherence — provide benefits in terms of arthritis pain reduction and improved quality of life.

What else should people know about physical therapy?

Physical therapy is classically used to help treat movement-related issues with the goal of improving physical function and quality of life. It’s not about the quick fix — it is about developing healthy lifestyle habits for the long term, which will allow you to live a full and purposeful life. It is one of four methods of arthritis pain relief that a fellowship-trained orthopedic expert may prescribe for arthritis pain.

Midwest Orthopaedic Consultants offers comprehensive orthopedic physical therapy for arthritis in the same convenient location as fellowship-trained orthopedic physicians.