It was a physical therapist that made me push for answers and a diagnosis. Here’s my experience with physical therapy and some benefits for rheumatoid arthritis.
Physical therapy often plays a role in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) treatment plans. It can help to improve strength, flexibility, and mobility.
For me, it has completely changed my relationship with RA. It has made me feel a sense of empowerment over my condition and a type of control over my body and pain that never felt possible before. In fact, I credit a physical therapist for helping me to push for a diagnosis.
Physical therapy will always be of immense importance to me — it was my savior when I didn’t yet know I needed saving. It’s continued to be my rock, and here’s why.
I had been advised to start physical therapy after meeting with an orthopedic doctor 5 years ago for shoulder pain. Sadly, the orthopedic doctor didn’t seem too concerned about my shoulder issues. But the physical therapist definitely was.
He gave me some answers, informing me that I had almost developed a “frozen shoulder.” He also left me with some questions. He told me that the pain I was experiencing in both shoulders, as well as other joints, was very unusual for someone my age who had not been in an accident. I could tell he was right as I looked around and noticed that I was the only patient who wasn’t elderly, an athlete, or recovering from surgery.
The interest he showed led me to open up and talk more about my symptoms. I mentioned that I had been having numbness and tingling in my arms, hands, legs, and feet. He recognized that these could be signs of RA.
The physical therapist made me realize that I needed to push for more answers, and to advocate for myself in a system that had passed me off to him. He convinced me to receive blood work that ultimately led to a diagnosis.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) describes physical therapists as movement experts who improve quality of life through a combination of prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.
As well as physical therapy, you might have heard of occupational therapy for RA.
Physical therapy focuses on improving your ability to move, including increasing the range of movements, mobility of joints, and improving fitness and functionality. The therapy might have a greater emphasis on movement and exercise.
Occupational therapy focuses on helping you perform daily tasks more easily. This might include adapting, modifying, or changing daily activities dependent on your needs. The therapy might involve types of movements that aim to improve your fine and gross motor skills to carry out these tasks.
To read more about the differences, check out this resource.
Physical therapy can be an important tool for reducing pain, improving mobility, and restoring function and strength for those with RA. A physical therapist can provide advice on exercises that can be done during an appointment and at home to improve joint function and overall health.
The 2022 American College of Rheumatology Integrative RA Treatment Guideline states that consistent exercise is the most effective lifestyle intervention to improve physical function and decrease RA pain. A study from 2020 has also shown that exercise improved cognitive function and fatigue in those living with RA.
Licensed physical therapists work in a range of healthcare settings including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and outpatient offices.
Physical therapy worked so well for my shoulder pain that I recently decided to try it again to address my chronic hip and neck pain from RA. I asked my primary care doctor for a referral and was contacted by an outpatient office. During my initial consultation, we discussed my goals for treatment, which included strength building and pain reduction. After, a care plan was created.
My physical therapy appointments typically involve:
I’m also usually given a handout of exercises to do at home.
Before physical therapy, I used to feel inferior to my RA. I felt like I had no control over the inflammation and damage that was occurring in my body. When I do my physical therapy exercises, I feel like I’m gaining strength and helping to support the joints in my body. I start to take charge.
It’s not always easy, especially during a flare. But it gives me a sense of empowerment over my disease, both physically and mentally.
Whenever the physical therapist asks if I am experiencing any pain, I have to chuckle because I almost always have pain somewhere in my body. But I have noticed that I often feel better after a session. It reduced my pain and increased my mobility after just a few weeks of therapy.
Physical therapy has been helpful for me, but it isn’t cheap — even with insurance. That’s why I am vigilant about doing as much as I can at home to help support my progress.
A physical therapist can teach you about different exercises and stretches you can do at home with whatever equipment you may have. I use an elliptical machine to warm up and then go through a series of physical therapy exercises and stretches every other day.
I have found that the resistance bands and some other equipment used at physical therapy offices are available for purchase online at a reasonable cost. This has been very helpful as I’m now taking a break from physical therapy appointments but am still able to do many of the exercises on my own.
Extra equipment isn’t necessary though, and there are always adapted exercises that your physical therapist can teach you. These exercises, shared by a physical therapist, are just some examples.
I am beyond grateful that I sought help for my shoulder pain 5 years ago. My physical therapist took my symptoms seriously at a time when no one else listened. It led to my RA diagnosis and a greater understanding of my body.
Physical therapy has empowered me to stay active and take charge of my condition.
Medically reviewed on August 10, 2023
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