Physical therapy makes life easier for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers

Date Published: 
February 2, 2017

If you’re one of the more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), getting through the day can be an uphill battle. It can be painful and make the simple things seem out of reach. With more than 1 percent of the population of this country dealing with RA, do you know what it is, what the symptoms are, and how it can impact your life or the life of someone you care about?

RA is an autoimmune disorder. Nobody can say for sure what causes it, but the medical community continues to look at a variety of potential factors, including the immune system, genetics, bacteria, viruses and even smoking. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with it. The numbers show three times as many women are diagnosed with RA versus men. Typically, the onset of RA is seen between the ages of 30 and 60, but even children are at risk of developing RA.

Typically, a person with RA will experience symptoms that can include inflammation of the joints, chronic pain, weakness, stiffness and fatigue. Unfortunately, there are a variety of other symptoms that some people can have, and there is no seeming reason why some people will have all kinds of symptoms and others only a few.

As if it wasn’t tough enough, people who suffer from RA are also at greater risk for a variety of other complications, including infection, anemia, cardiovascular disease, some other autoimmune diseases, lung disease, blood cancers, lung cancer, bone thinning, osteoporosis and joint damage. I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that depression is another issue people suffering with RA often deal with.

If you are newly diagnosed, as I always advise you, every program starts with your medical professional. Only your doctor can tell you whether physical therapy is appropriate for your particular situation, based on your overall condition, which may also involve other health challenges. Remember to share any changes in your health, whether an issue is getting better or getting worse, or whether there are new problems you are experiencing, and give your doctor a current list of your medications, vitamins and any other supplements, so you can get the best possible input.

If you’re already coping with RA, it’s very likely that you and your doctor have discussed physical therapy. Physical therapy is quite often a very important part of the approach to addressing this painful affliction, because for many people it has shown to be effective in easing a variety of symptoms, including joint pain and inflammation. In fact, it very often helps relieve the kind of stiffness and pain that can be so limiting with RA, so the quality of your life improves.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that physical activity cannot only reduce the pain associated with RA, but it will also improve your function, your mood and your overall quality of life. That’s what physical therapy is all about.

And, the benefits don’t stop there. People often become frustrated and depressed because many people who must cope with RA become disabled. It’s a terrible thing to feel powerless and vulnerable. No one wants to be stripped of their sense of independence. The CDC weighs in here, too, reporting that being physically active, which is so much a part of your physical therapy, can hold up the start of disability.

So where do you begin? If your medical professional refers you to a physical therapist, start with a dialogue. Talking with your physical therapist is important. Share what you are feeling, talk about what’s important in your daily life. Explain what the impact has been, and don’t hold back. It will help your physical therapist to understand where you are and how to help you go forward.

You can expect your physical therapist will also be having an ongoing dialogue with your doctor to share information as your treatment plan evolves. Your physical therapist will put all the information together to design an individual treatment plan that will likely include a focus on the areas that will provide you with key benefits that will make you better equipped to deal with current and future issues associated with RA.

Exercise is often at the heart of an RA physical therapy program. It’s so important because the right exercise program and specific treatment techniques that go with it will make an important difference in your flexibility and movement. At the same time, you will get a big assist in holding off that recurring pain, along with giving you important improvements in your overall health.

Your physical therapist will likely also include treatments to address strengthening. Because your range of motion most often becomes restricted with RA, a customized treatment plan will include strengthening and stretching treatments to build and strengthen muscles and further address joint movement. This will help you with pain, too.

Aerobic exercises may be part of the mix. In fact, your physical therapist may also suggest low-impact aerobic exercises that you can do at home, such as going for a walk or swimming. It helps you with flexibility and strengthening without putting stress on your joints.

Don’t be surprised if your physical therapist incorporates hot or cold therapies in your treatment program. In some cases, cold therapy can be effective because it can work to reduce swelling. Heat therapy can be effective in some cases, easing joints and muscles and speeding up blood flow to painful areas. Your physical therapist will make a determination as to whether these therapies should be part of your treatment plan based on your specific condition.

Finally, your physical therapist may talk to you about other strategies to give you a better quality of life with less pain and more functionality. Issues ranging from proper posture to how to use aids such as a cane or a walker, if you have one, will likely be part of the conversation.

You may also find your physical therapist talking to you about eating a healthy diet. Tell your physical therapist if you are having issues with stress or getting enough sleep. You are a team, and you have to work together to get all the help that you need.

I read a quote recently from an RA sufferer, which said, “I don’t want my pain and struggle to make me a victim. I want my battle to make me someone else’s hero.”

I’m going to make a little change on that: Be your own hero. When all is said and done, being an advocate for your improved health is critically important. You owe it to yourself to be proactive and always be on the lookout for opportunities to improve your wellbeing.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.