Physical Therapy for Joint Pain

Physical therapy is a safe and effective treatment for managing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA), as well as other joint problems. Physical therapy involves two main types of treatment: passive treatments and active treatments. Both types of treatment can significantly reduce the pain associate with joint conditions.


What is a Physical Therapist?


A physical therapist (called a PT) can help you get up and get moving. Physical therapists are licensed health professionals who have graduate degrees and much clinical experience. They diagnose and treat your joint pain, focusing on preventing conditions that will limit your body’s ability to move effectively.


Movement can be anything from climbing stairs to getting in and out of a chair, or it can be playing sports and doing recreational activities. Regardless of your activity level, a physical therapist can devise an effective treatment plan for you. An individualized plan is used to achieve optimal physical function. The therapist will:


  • Show you how to properly use assistive devices.
  • Teach you proper posture and body mechanics for common daily activities to improve function and relieve pain.
  • Suggest modifications to your environment, such as a cushioned kitchen mat or an ergonomic chair.
  • Recommend treatment options, such as cold/heat therapy, splints/braces, and special shoe inserts.


Passive Treatments


Passive treatments involve the physical therapist doing most of the work. Some passive treatments include:


  • Heat therapy – This eases muscle tension and gets the blood flowing more quickly to the painful region. A moist, warm cloth applied to an extremity promotes circulation.


  • Cold therapy – This is used to decrease swelling, and an ice pack relieves pain when applied to a region of the body.


  • Hydrotherapy – Used to reduce joint pain. The patient is usually submerged in warm water during this treatment.


  • Massage – Used to reduce muscle tension, promote circulation, and manage stress.


  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – Works by blocking pain signal transmission from one body region to the brain. This also is used to decrease muscle spasms.


  • Ultrasound – Creates warmth using sound waves, decreases pain, inflammation, and stiffness, and is used to enhance circulation.


Active Treatments


Your physical therapist will implement an exercise regimen to help strengthen certain muscle groups and improve flexibility. In addition, the therapist will recommend some type of aerobic exercise. Options include:


  • Flexibility and strengthening exercises – These are used to improve range of motion, build muscle strength, and increase mobility. Pilates and Yoga are good flexibility and strengthening exercises.


  • Low impact aerobics – Many people with OA, RA, or other joint conditions cannot partake in high impact sporting activities and running. However, the physical therapist will teach you low impact aerobic activities, which improves strength and endurance. These exercises should be done 3-5 times each week for 30 minutes.


When working with the physical therapist, remember some mild soreness is normal. However, if you have pain or new symptoms, stop the activity, tell your therapist, or see your orthopedic specialist right away. Physical therapy is used to ease chronic joint pain, alleviate inflammation, and reduce joint symptoms. Discuss your treatment options with the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist.