By Kevin Brown, DPT
Approximately 50 million Americans are affected by arthritis and it has become one of the leading causes of pain and disability world-wide. With May being “Arthritis Awareness Month”, it seems appropriate to discuss a few areas of this condition. As a physical therapist at Sports Physical Therapy in New York, I have become extremely familiar with this disease and its progressive nature.
It has become a common misconception that there are no effective treatments for arthritis. Unfortunately, many people become content with it and do not seek other options. One of the worst things people can do with this diagnosis is avoid exercise in fear of worsening their pain. Physical therapists need to educate people with arthritis on coping mechanisms including activity modification. For instance, people who are no longer able to run due to pain can still achieve the benefits of aerobic exercise by swimming, biking, or other exercises that reduce the impact through a joint. Education should also include the role of a diet on arthritis. Physical therapy can have a more direct role as well; manual therapy techniques provided within a PT clinic and an extensive home exercise program have both been shown to significantly improve symptoms associated with arthritis.
One of the most common phrases I hear in the clinic is “I am bone on bone”. People often mistakenly accept this and give up on exercise all together. As I mentioned previously there are still treatment options. My best advice is to not give up and become complacent. Seek alternatives and stay as active as possible. You must consider other aspects of your physical well-being, and avoiding exercise has a tremendous impact on your cardiovascular health, mood, weight, other joints, etc. Mental health can also be significantly affected; depression is very prevalent in individuals with arthritis. When people are deprived of participating in their favorite activities it can be very debilitating.
Of course, there are cases in which arthritis is extreme and surgery is indicated such as total joint replacements. It is important to note two key aspects of joint replacements. 1) There is a shelf life of a joint replacement. Although many knee and hip replacements currently last up to 20 years, if you are young and active it may be wise to delay the surgery as long as possible. 2) The more range of motion and strength you have going into a total joint replacement, the better your prognosis will be. Many surgeons are now recommending “pre-habilitation services” prior to surgery to set themselves up for success afterwards. A physical therapist can certainly help in this area to provide an appropriate exercise program individualized to one’s specific needs as well as educate them on expectations for surgery.
Physical therapy for arthritis has been researched extensively and the benefits are well documented within the literature. If you are suffering from arthritis, I believe that is in your best interest to seek an experienced physical therapist to help guide you through the process and maximize your functional mobility.