“Arthritis” is an umbrella term that actually encompasses a wide variety of conditions related to joint pain or joint disease. In fact, there are more than a hundred different types of arthritis, and the condition can be mild, moderate, or severe. Common arthritis symptoms include joint pain and stiffness, swelling, and impaired mobility and flexibility. While arthritis can affect anyone—regardless of age or gender—it is more common among women and tends to affect people more as they age.
Some common categories of arthritis include:
- Degenerative arthritis: This occurs when cartilage—the protective cushioning between joints—wears away over time, causing bone to rub against bone. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of degenerative arthritis.
- Inflammatory arthritis: This occurs when a misdirected inflammatory response attacks the joints. Examples of inflammatory arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.
- Infectious arthritis: This occurs when bacteria, viruses, or fungi enter the body and cause infection and/or inflammation, which may affect the joints. This can happen with blood infections like hepatitis C, sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea, and food poisoning or contamination via salmonella or shigella.
- Metabolic arthritis: This occurs when there’s a build-up of uric acid, a substance formed as the body processes purines. The build-up forms sharp crystals in the joint, which then cause a sudden type of pain known as gout.
A physical therapist can help those suffering from arthritis improve mobility and function in the affected joint(s), increase strength and stability in the supporting tissues and structures surrounding the joint(s), and improve/maintain the function necessary to perform activities of daily living over the long term.
To do so, the therapist will work with the patient to design a care plan focused on improving joint health—that is, reducing pain and inflammation, addressing areas of weakness and instability, and increasing flexibility and range of motion. This plan will involve a variety of passive modalities—like massage and ultrasound—as well as active exercises. In fact, the therapist will create a home exercise program designed to support care continuity and expedite progress outside of the clinic.
Additionally, the therapist may:
- Assess posture, gait, and body mechanics and make recommendations based on abnormalities and deficiencies;
- Recommend assistive devices and educate the patient on proper use of the device;
- Suggest other devices like braces or orthotics (and possibly even provide them); and
- Develop environmental modifications that may help take stress off of the affected joints.