More than joint stiffness or even pain, studies show the inability to perform activities is what prompts many people to seek the help of their doctor or other health professional.  If arthritis is limiting your activities, a physical therapist (PT) can help.

Physical therapists are licensed professionals with graduate degrees and extensive clinical experience who examine, diagnose, and then prevent or treat conditions that limit the body's ability to move and function in daily life, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

“The best way to talk about this health profession is we are movement specialists,” says Doreen M. Stiskal, PhD, associate professor and chair of the physical therapy department at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “When you think about movement, that can be anything from getting in and out of chairs to climbing stairs, to walking in your environment to playing a sport or doing recreational activities,” says Stiskal. “Physical therapy focuses on the body’s ability to do movement.”

Physical therapy may include modalities such as braces and splints to support joints, shoes inserts to relieve stress on the lower extremities, hot and cold therapy to ease joint pain and stiffness, and modifications to your environment (such as ergonomic chairs or desks or chef’s mats in your kitchen) to relieve pain and improve function. But for most people the major focus of physical therapy will be on a plan of exercises to improve flexibility, strength, coordination and balance, says Stiskal. “All of these when you put them together translate into optimal physical function.” 

Short, Directed Therapy

If you had physical therapy in the past and have decided to pursue it again, you might notice some changes this time around, says Stiskal. In the past, for example, your physical therapist may have performed a lot of hot and cold therapy or spent a great deal of time going through specific exercises with you. But as changes to insurance and the healthcare system limit both the number of visits and time of each visit with a physical therapist, it is more productive for the therapist to spend time teaching you do these things for yourself, she says. “We often have short, focused visits. The major goals of physical therapy now are to look at the problems with physical function and give strategies for care.”

Learning exercises from a physical therapist and practicing them at home long term is key to a successful outcome. The body can only get stronger a little bit at a time and improvement is gradual, so when you consistently practice the activity plan your PT gives you, much of your improvement will occur in the months following your discharge, says Stiskal.

The good thing about this new approach is that it allows you to take a greater role in your own care for long-term results. If you experience a change (such as a flare in your arthritis that causes you to fall behind in your exercise program, or involvement of a different joint that affects another area of function, for example) you can return to the physical therapist to update your exercise program and treatment strategy.

“You can think of physical therapy very much like seeing your physician,” says Stiskal. “You don’t need to go to your physician every week to manage your arthritis. Just as you see your physician periodically you periodically might want to revisit your PT to get an update on your program.”