Arthritis is an extremely painful condition that causes joint stiffness and reduces range of motion. Ironically, though, the pain of arthritis can lead to a vicious cycle—you reduce your movement because it hurts, which causes your joints to become even stiffer, which causes more pain.
Physical therapy can break this cycle by teaching you how to move your arthritic joints in a safe way that will not cause further damage. Over time, these movements will help to open up the range of motion in your joints, reducing stiffness and relieving pain. In addition, physical therapy will build up the muscles around your joints, providing the strength that is required to stabilize them.
Benefits of Physical Therapy for Arthritis
A customized physical therapy program for arthritis has three primary goals:
Increase range of motion: People with arthritis tend to bend the affected joints to minimize pain. Over time, this can lead to permanent loss of mobility and the inability to perform the activities of daily living. Range of motion exercises increase and preserve mobility and flexibility in the arthritic joints. Gradually, over the course of the program, the joints are progressively stretched until normal or near-normal functioning is achieved and maintained. These exercises also serve as vital warm-ups for the strengthening and endurance-building exercises to follow.
Strengthen the supporting muscles: The stronger the muscles surrounding your painful joints are, the better they can stabilize and support those joints. Isometric exercises, which do not require you to bend your joints, as well as more intense isotonic exercises, can help you safely and effectively strengthen your muscles while reducing pain.
Build endurance: Aerobic exercise, which raises the heart rate, is the foundation of any endurance training program. It improves cardiovascular health, minimizes the load on your joints by reducing body weight, and helps your lungs and heart distribute more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, bicycling, and low-impact dance. Your range of motion and strength-building exercises will help to unlock your body, making it easier to perform endurance training.
Hydrotherapy, also known as aqua therapy, is physical therapy that takes place in a swimming pool. The natural buoyancy that the water provides alleviates much of the pressure on the joints, while the resistance of the water helps to build both strength and endurance. Many people find that they can do much more than they thought when performing exercises in the water.
Special Considerations for Endurance Training
If you have been suffering the painful effects of arthritis for some time, it is highly likely that you are no longer in the same overall physical condition that you were in before you developed the disease. Once the pain begins to subside, you might want to jump back into any sports or fitness routines that you previously enjoyed.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about your target heart rate. Unless your doctor instructs you otherwise due to your individual health concerns, your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. Your target heart rate during aerobic exercise is 60 to 80 percent of your maximum. If you choose not to monitor your heart rate during exercise, try the “talk test.” You should be able to carry on a normal conversation while exercising. If you are unable to do so, slow down.
Your therapist will help you decide exactly how much of what type of aerobic exercise is best. In general, those with arthritis should start with at least 15 to 20 minutes of this exercise at least three times per week, building up to at least 30 minutes per day. In addition, you should spend 5 to 10 minutes warming up and 5 to 10 minutes cooling down with each session. If necessary, you can split up your aerobic exercise into smaller segments throughout the day. Of course, if you already have good endurance and overall fitness, starting at a more intense level may be appropriate.
Recreational sports are generally okay and even helpful for most people with arthritis. Ask your physical therapist how to best manage your pain and protect your joints before, during, and after each sports session.
What to Expect
Beginning a new exercise program can be stressful on your body. Expect your muscles, sleep patterns, and general energy level to fluctuate during the first few weeks. However, your body will also give you warning signs if you work it too hard. Call your doctor or physical therapist if you notice any of the following:
- New pain that is not alleviated with rest or your regular medications
- Ongoing fatigue
- Sudden sharp pain
- New or worsening joint weakness
- Decreased range of motion
- New or worsening joint swelling
Founded by physical therapy innovator Dr. Joseph Simon, the Manhattan Physical Therapy and Pain Center is a leader in pain relief and injury recovery conveniently located in Midtown Manhattan. We offer several dedicated programs for different conditions, along with the latest innovations in physical therapy for all. If you are ready for the latest treatments for pain or injury, call us today at (212) 213-3480 to learn how we can help.