Physical Therapy for Arthritis

There are lots of reasons why joint pain might land you in physical therapy. Maybe you have back pain that won’t quit, aching knees you believe are the result of years of being a long-distance runner, or discomfort in your hips that mimics what your mom complained about when she was your age. Whatever the impetus, the right physical therapy program can help you feel better and improve your mobility. And, if you’re lucky, it might even lead to more insight about why you’re in pain and how to best treat it.

Although joint pain is often caused by acute injury or years of wear and tear on your body, it can also be due to a chronic, inflammatory condition like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Yet sometimes it’s hard to figure out the cause. A new study suggests that physical therapists may be able to help clear things up and point patients in the right direction.

According to the study, which was published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, most physical therapists are able to distinguish between OA and RA. They’re also able to figure out whether a patient is dealing with mechanical low back pain or likely to have inflammatory back pain from ankylosing spondylitis or axial spondyloarthritis.

To conduct the study, researchers from the University of Montreal surveyed 352 physical therapists practicing in Quebec and Alberta, Canada. The survey contained descriptions of four case scenarios of patients who had been diagnosed with either new-onset RA, knee OA, new-onset AS, or low back pain. (The therapists didn’t know what the diagnoses were; they only got descriptions of the patients’ symptoms and history.)

According to their findings, 90 percent of the physical therapists (PTs) surveyed correctly identified RA and 77 percent correctly identified AS.

“Most PTs correctly identified the clinical cases and were aware of the importance of prompt referral to rheumatology for inflammatory disease,” the authors wrote.

This finding underscores the need to tell your physical therapist about all your symptoms, history, and the nature of your pain; they may be able to suggest what’s causing your pain and direct you to the right specialist for diagnosis and treatment, such as a rheumatologist.

If a rheumatologist diagnoses you with an inflammatory condition such as RA or AS, physical therapy might still be worthwhile — but you’ll also probably need medication to address the underlying disease and prevent disease progression and complications.

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