Arthritis is not just about having joint pain; it can also affect many other aspects of your life.
As someone who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age, 29, I can attest to how much it affects my daily life.
Experiencing pain can make routine tasks, such as washing my face or vacuuming, agonizing. Even taking a shower might necessitate a rest afterward. Medications and inflammation may result in cognitive fog and forgetfulness. Each day, I must carefully balance activity to avoid exacerbating my arthritis symptoms. How did I learn to do this?
Rheumatologists offer guidance on medications for our conditions and disease management but may not have the expertise to recommend coping strategies for activities of daily living. Although they are crucial in directing us to appropriate care beyond their knowledge base, self-management is vital for someone with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But who do we see to help us with these crucial skills?
My Experience with Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapy can improve our ability to carry out everyday tasks, maintain independence, enhance overall life quality, and help protect against painful joints or severe arthritis symptoms.
RA is a progressive disease that comes with a variety of comorbidities. As my body and my health changes, OT has helped me along the way.
Although I was acquainted with physiotherapy, I initially lacked an understanding of the role occupational therapy played after my diagnosis and when considering long-term disability. I had no awareness that occupational therapists (OTs) could help address the myriad challenges stemming from my arthritis diagnosis and its associated comorbidities.
OTs can assist in various aspects of life, such as parenting, socializing, household chores, intimate relationships, and achieving work-life balance. The scope of occupational therapy is wide-ranging and essential throughout our journey with arthritis.
The Key Principles of Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapy encompasses essential principles that help us to understand the underlying causes of our pain and equip us with practical tools, techniques, and exercises, all delivered in an accessible manner free from complex medical jargon.
These key principles include:
- Prioritizing: Focusing on what truly matters amidst the challenges of chronic pain and limited energy.
- Pacing: Learning effective strategies to distribute effort, manage fatigue, and enhance productivity.
- Positioning: Optimizing ergonomic setups for activities like computer work to alleviate pain and discomfort.
- Planning: Considering daily symptom management when scheduling activities.
Not Everyone Has Access
Unfortunately, not everyone is promptly referred to an occupational therapist or offered access due to geographic locations or financial/language barriers. Many rheumatologists fail to inform patients about available OT services.
Referrals for newly diagnosed patients or those further along their arthritis journey are crucial for effective self-management. Lack of referrals and awareness about an OT’s role leads many people to seek information online rather than obtaining personalized support for disease-related challenges.
For those who do not have access to an occupational therapist where they live, I highly suggest following Arthritis Life Cheryl, an occupational therapist with RA who has developed so much important content for those with arthritis.
What I’ve Learned From Occupational Therapy
As someone living with arthritis, occupational therapists are an important role in my health care team. They provide a unique type of care and expertise that is useful throughout my journey with arthritis. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my OT.
- Keeping things in easy reach: An OT suggested placing frequently used items within easy reach to minimize joint pain, fatigue, and overuse. This simple tip has led to the creation of shelves throughout my house with easily accessible, commonly used items, effectively reducing joint pain and simplifying daily routines.
- Understanding pain mechanisms: Occupational therapy helps us grasp the “mechanism” of pain and equips us with tools, techniques, and exercises to alleviate it. For instance, an OT pointed out that adding excessive heat to inflamed joints can worsen inflammation, suggesting the use of ice instead.
- Navigating assistive devices: OTs assist in choosing appropriate assistive devices tailored to our specific needs, considering factors like cost-effectiveness. This guidance is valuable, especially when facing misdiagnoses like carpal tunnel syndrome before a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Wrist braces that were too tight worsened joint swelling, highlighting the importance of OT support.