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Working with your physiotherapist to treat your arthritis pain and symptoms

Physiotherapist helping patient with arthritis

Image courtesy of Ambro at

Working with your physiotherapist to treat your arthritis pain and symptoms

Physiotherapy is often part of a well-balanced treatment plan for many of the more than 100 types of arthritis. It focuses on maintaining, restoring or improving physical function as well as preventing and managing pain, through the use of non-medication treatments.

When choosing a physiotherapist, it is important to look for someone who has experience treating your type of arthritis, if possible. As well, it is important that you feel comfortable with your therapist, and that you relate well on a personal level.

A physiotherapist will examine your body, and assess things like joint range-of-motion, muscle strength, and swelling or instability in affected joints. A physiotherapist will also likely look at any diagnostic imaging-like x-rays-that you have had done, as well as results from any laboratory testing-for example, blood tests or joint aspirations. Finally, the therapist will want to hear from you about your symptoms, mobility, and changes in your body. Then, using the assessment above, the physiotherapist develops a treatment plan that is specifically tailored to the client’s needs. Some of the treatments used by physiotherapists include:

Thermotherapy (application of heat or cold)
One of the chief tools for pain management used by physiotherapists is the application of heat or cold to affected joints. For example, before exercise, ice packs can provide short-term relief from pain and swelling which may make it possible to perform exercises that could otherwise be very difficult.

Electrotherapy (electric nerve stimulation)
There a several kinds of electrotherapy. A common one called transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TNS) interferes with the ability of nerves to transmit pain signals to the brain. Physiotherapists may use electrotherapy to reduce pain associated with arthritis.

Manual therapy
Physiotherapists may use manual therapy, a hands-on approach to keep joint structures mobile, to reduce joint pain and stiffness. Some range of motion and stretching exercises fall under this category.

Physical activity is a critically important area for managing arthritis. Exercises may be designed to improve strength, mobility, and flexibility. These exercises also help to improve a client’s pain and overall well being. There are three general types of exercise used in physiotherapy:

  • Range-of-motion exercises: these are designed to take joints through as full a range of motion as possible, to help keep people with arthritis-especially inflammatory types-from losing mobility in affected joints.
  • Strengthening exercises: these are intended to help people with arthritis gain muscle mass and increase muscle strength. Strong muscles can help to protect joints.
  • General conditioning exercises: developed to help people with arthritis to maintain general fitness and healthy body weight.
infographic on how much physical activity you should do

Infographic from: @ExerciseWorks

For a physiotherapy plan to work, the person with arthritis must believe that the plan has value, and that it has the potential to be helpful. A plan will only be successful if you:

  • Provide input: building a physiotherapy plan should be a give-and-take process. Your physiotherapist needs to hear about your goals-what you hope to achieve from treatment, and any questions of concerns you have about the plan.
  • Commit to your plan: your plan can only succeed if you are committed to the goals you have set out and the treatments your therapist has recommended.
  • Follow through: once you have agreed on the plan and committed to it, actually executing the plan is critical. While this might seem obvious, this is likely to be the most difficult part. This means attending scheduled visits, and completing any exercises your therapist prescribes for you to do at home.
  • Communicate honestly: your PT needs to know how you are feeling about your treatment-whether you are encouraged, discouraged, confused, worried-so that they can help, and adjust your treatment plan if necessary. Be honest about your adherence to the plan as well-if you miss a week of home exercises, be sure to tell your PT.