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Arthritis: Physiotherapy and occupational therapy

Arthritis treatment may include physiotherapy and/or occupational therapy.

People with arthritis often have stiff joints - largely because they avoid movements that can increase pain. By immobilising arthritic joints, however, the stiffness and pain only get worse. Therefore people with arthritis often benefit from physiotherapy. A physiotherapist can teach you how to work out stiffness without further damaging your joint. Physiotherapy is also useful after an injury such as from a fall and after joint surgery, especially for artificial joint replacement.

Occupational therapy can teach you how to reduce strain on your joints during daily activities. Occupational therapists can show you how to modify your home and workplace environments to reduce motions that may aggravate arthritis. They also may provide splints for your hands or wrists, and recommend assistive devices to aid in tasks such as driving, bathing, dressing, housekeeping and certain work activities.

What is the goal of physiotherapy?

The goal of physiotherapy is to get a person back to the point where he or she can perform normal everyday activities without difficulty.

Preserving good range of motion is key to maintain the ability to perform daily activities, so increasing the range of motion of a joint is the primary focus of physiotherapy. Building strength in the involved muscles surrounding the joint is also extremely important, since stronger muscles can better stabilise a weakened joint.

Physiotherapists provide exercises designed to preserve the strength and use of your joints. They can show you the best way to move from one position to another and can also teach you how to use walking aids such as crutches, a walker or a walking stick if necessary.

What are some benefits of occupational and physiotherapy programmes?

There are many benefits to participating in a physical and occupational therapy programme including:

  • You gain education about your type of arthritis, so that you can be well informed.
  • If you are overweight, a dietary plan can be created to reduce the stress of excess weight on supporting joints of the back, legs and feet. (As yet, no specific diet - other than a diet designed for weight loss - has proved helpful for arthritis.)
  • You gain foot care advice, including choice of well-fitting shoes with shock-absorbing outer soles and sculptured (orthotic) insoles moulded exactly to the contour of each foot.
  • You will learn therapeutic methods to relieve discomfort and improve performance through various physical techniques and activity modifications.

What techniques will I learn?

You'll learn several techniques including:

  • Rest. Bed rest helps reduce both joint inflammation and pain, and is especially useful when multiple joints are affected and fatigue is a major problem. Individual joint rest is most helpful when arthritis involves one or only a few joints. Custom splints can be made to rest and support inflamed joints and a soft collar can support the neck while you are sitting or standing.
  • Thermal modalities. Applying ice packs or heating pads, as well as deep heat provided by ultrasound and hot packs, can help relieve local pain. Heat also relaxes muscle spasm around inflamed joints. Heating joints and muscles with a warm bath or shower before exercising may help you exercise more easily.
  • Exercise. Exercise is an important part of arthritis treatment that is most effective when done properly every day. Your doctor and therapist will prescribe a programme for you that may vary as your needs change.
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