Osteoarthritis (OA) can have a major impact on essential and functional activities of daily living. It can reduce or hinder a person’s ability to walk, ride a bike, climb stairs or get on the ground to play with children and grandchildren.
It can cause pain that limits us from doing the things we love in life and stop us from reaching our full potential on a daily basis. But what exactly is arthritis and what can be done about the symptoms that so many of us experience?
Simply put, OA is a disease process that affects not only the articular cartilage (the tissue covering the ends of bones) of any given joint, but also the bones, ligaments, joint capsule, membrane and muscles that surround the joint. With so many structures being affected, it can seem like a daunting disease with the potential for invasive treatment options, such as injections or surgery. However, there is another option when it comes to osteoarthritis – physical therapy. Although physical therapy cannot reverse the effects of arthritis, it can help to limit the pain and symptoms associated with arthritis and help get you back on track to doing the things you love again.
Here are a few ways that physical therapy can help with OA:
As previously mentioned, OA can negatively affect not only the joint, but the capsule and ligaments that surround the joint. This process often results in painful and limited range of motion that impedes our body’s full ability to move properly. In order to combat this effect, your physical therapist can teach you to stretch the appropriate musculature to regain some of the motion and reduce pain with movement. Additionally, your therapist will be able to perform specialty techniques to address joint stiffness, enabling the bones that make the joint slide and glide with each movement, do so in a smoother and pain free manner.
Weakness of the surrounding muscles is often accompanied with pain and range of motion restrictions as a result of OA. It only makes sense: the more your joint hurts, the less you move the joint, the weaker the surrounding muscles become. With the guidance of your physical therapist, gentle and targeted strengthening of the surrounding muscles can help to stabilize the joint and provide necessary input to reduce the nocicpetive (pain) response surrounding the joint and improve endurance with the activities that you are trying to return to.
If you have a certain joint that is lacking strength or range of motion, stretching or improving the motion in an adjacent joint is a great way to compensate for the deficit and improve your overall functional mobility. Let me provide an example. Say you have severe arthritis in your lower back that is limiting your vertebrae (bones forming the column of your spine) from twisting and sliding on each other. This deficit, in turn, is limiting your ability to turn around and look over your shoulder. If you were able to improve the range of motion at your hips, then your body could compensate for the lack of motion of the lower back, thereby improving your overall functional ability.
Physical therapists are the movement experts. We see the body as a whole, not just interconnected parts that need treating individually. We can see that in many people, abnormal movement patterns such as poor posture, poor lifting form or certain curves in the spine can have detrimental effects on the way our bones and joints move upon each other. Improving simple movement patterns and posture can serve a person greatly in reducing abnormal and unwanted pressure through certain body parts and allow the body to distribute the forces of gravity in the most natural way possible.
While physical therapy is not able to physically change or reverse the effects of OA, there are certainly many benefits that stand to be gained by visiting a physical therapist. Physical therapy has the ability to help you restore some of the function and mobility lost to arthritis, improve strength, and get you back to doing the things that you love.
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