Arthritis is the wearing, degeneration or loss of articular cartilage in a joint. The three most common types of joint arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and traumatic arthritis. Unlike other forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune disease that is not caused by common wear and tear on the joint. This condition usually affects joints symmetrically (for example, both knees, both wrists, both shoulders). Rheumatoid arthritis causes degeneration of the articular or joint cartilage. It can also affect the tissue that surrounds and lubricates the joint (synovium). If the joint surfaces and cartilage are not lubricated they can start to rub, causing wear.
Rheumatoid arthritis can affect other parts of the body including organs like the heart and lungs, and can even cause fatigue. The cause of Rheumatoid arthritis is not fully known. It is considered an autoimmune disease where the cells of the body attack themselves. Although it is a chronic condition, individuals can have periods of little to no symptoms mixed with acute or symptomatic periods. There can be a genetic component to this disease.
- Pain is present over the affected joint often affecting both right and left.
- Swelling and inflammation of the joint.
- The joint will feel hot or warm to the touch.
- Stiffness and loss of motion of the affected joint when bending and/or straightening the joint.
- Weakness, which may be manifested as difficulty walking, getting up from a sitting position, kneeling, squatting and climbing stairs.
- Fatigue or tiring easily when performing normal daily activities.
Physical Therapy Interventions
Physical Therapists are professionals, educated and trained to administer interventions. As defined by The Guide to Physical Therapist Practice, interventions are the skilled and purposeful use of physical therapy methods and techniques to produce changes consistent with the diagnosis, prognosis and the patient or client’s goals.
Your physical therapist will perform a thorough evaluation to assess and determine the following:
- Joint: a series of measurements will be performed to determine which joint is involved and the extent to which the inflammation is acute
- Strength: resisted testing is performed to determine if there is associated weakness or strength imbalances
- Flexibility: range of motion measurements will be taken to determine if there is reduced joint movement
- Technique and ADL: the therapist will review what activities you have difficulty with and will help you make modifications in technique to reduce stress on the involved joint.
- Gait, Balance and Alignment: the therapist will assess your gait and balance on even and uneven surfaces. An assistive device such as a cane or walker may be indicated to improve safety, gait and reduce stress on the effected joint.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Considerations
The ideal treatment involves a combination of medication, rest, joint range of motion and strengthening exercises, joint protection strategies such as bracing and splinting and patient education. Restoring range of motion and strength is paramount to maintaining function. Protecting the joint through education about movement, bracing and splinting when necessary can help reduce further joint damage. Treatment is customized depending on the individual’s age, level of function, acute versus chronic flare up, pain level and general health.
- Rest: avoid the activities that produce the pain. Avoid jumping, running, going up and down stairs, kneeling, squatting and walking for extended periods of time.
- Ice or moist heat: apply ice to the joint or area of pain or inflammation. It is one of the fastest ways to reduce swelling, pain and inflammation. Individuals with Rheumatoid arthritis may not tolerate ice well. The application of moist heat may be helpful with stiff joints. The application of ice or heat should be done at intervals for about twenty minutes at a time. Do not apply directly to the skin.
- Compression: when using ice, apply light compression. This is especially helpful if swelling is present.
- Elevation: elevate the area to help reduce swelling.
- Movement: keep your joints moving whenever possible. When pain occurs the tendency is not to move, but this will only result in further loss of motion and lead to increased pain and loss of function.
- Manual Therapeutic Technique (MTT): hands on care including soft tissue massage, stretching and joint mobilization by a physical therapist to improve alignment, mobility and range of motion of the affected joint. The use of mobilization techniques also helps to modulate pain.
- Therapeutic Exercises (TE) including stretching and strengthening exercises to regain range of motion and strengthen muscles of the joint and affected extremity to support, stabilize and decrease the stresses place on joint cartilage.
- Neuromuscular Reeducation (NMR) to restore stability, retrain the affected extremity and improve movement techniques and mechanics (for example, running, kneeling, squatting and jumping) of the involved extremity to reduce stress on the joint surfaces in daily activities. Taping, strapping or bracing may be indicated for joint protection and promote healing. Gait and balance training may be indicated in those that have issues with walking.
- Modalities including the use of ultrasound, electrical stimulation, ice, cold, laser and others to decrease pain and inflammation of the involved joint.