Healthy Living

Does Physical Therapy Help or Hurt RA?

Does Physical Therapy Help or Hurt RA?

Over 40 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or related forms of arthritis. That’s one in eight people in America alone who have arthritis, and this number has increased by about 40 percent within the last 10 years.

Arthritis (or inflammation of the joints) may be one of the oldest diseases known to man, but it is no longer considered to be just an elderly person's disease. There are over 100 different forms of arthritis and one variety or another can affect people in any age group, even children. Arthritis can affect both men and women but women are twice as likely as men to be afflicted.

With more people than ever from all age groups and all walks of life being affected by arthritis, people no longer wish to accept the idea that arthritis is just a normal part of aging and that there is no cure for it. People who are affected by arthritis and their loved ones are beginning to explore natural ways to feel better and are now aware of certain ways that they can take action to restore their health using natural and non-invasive approaches.

Natural approaches may help the body by supporting its normal function and balance. Unlike conventional drug therapy or surgery, which may have the potential of creating adverse side effects or masking symptoms without actually addressing the true causes of the disease, natural techniques, such as physical therapy, can be complementary to other lifestyle goals and do not have to overburden the body with toxic chemicals or temporarily cover up the symptoms of stiffness or pain.

It was not too long ago that people who had RA were confined to bed rest. Some patients were even hospitalized in an effort to bring the disease under control. Rest did, in fact (and still does) help reduce inflammation and pain, which confirmed the effectiveness of confining a patient to bed. However, what the medical professionals at that time did not realize was that lack of physical activity for prolonged periods can also cause muscles to weaken, bones to become fragile and brittle, and patient’s overall fitness to deteriorate (Fischer and Yu, 2005).

Medical experts now agree that proper physical therapy is key to help bring RA under control. Research has found that not only can patients do strengthening and low-impact aerobics, but that there are actually a lot of benefits to remaining active. These benefits include, but are not limited to, an increase in energy and decrease of overall fatigue levels (Fischer and Yu, 2005).

The idea of natural approaches may be new to you, but their efficacy has often been proven by professional health practitioners worldwide. As you explore and practice natural ideas and methods, you must be open to the idea of healing yourself from the inside out.

Types of Exercise

There are basically three types of exercise which can all play a huge role in improving symptoms of RA: Strength training, range-of-motion exercises, and cardiovascular exercises.

Strength Training

Strength training is definitely beneficial for anyone wishing to maintain their vitality. It is no longer just for those who are trying to gain big muscles. For the patient with RA, strength training can be an essential component of any exercise routine. Not only does strength training build muscles, but it also helps support and protect the joints. Many studies have shown that when patients with RA maintain a strength training exercise routine at home, they are more able to sustain their precious strength.

There are a number of certain types of strength training and some might be better for some than others. Before you begin any physical therapy exercise routine, you should always consult with your professional medical team or a physical therapist first. Once you have been given the go-ahead, some types of strength training that you should know include isometrics, isotonics, and water-resistance training

Range-of-Motion Exercises

Range-of-motion exercises are excellent at improving the ability to move freely without pain or stiffness. This type of exercise reduces stiffness, helps sustain joint mobility, and improves flexibility. Range-of-motion exercises involve moving each joint only as far as it can go without pain in every possible direction. People with RA often need a little bit of help moving joints in locations such as fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and toes. Some great examples of these types of exercises include basic stretches, yoga, some Pilates moves, and possibly tai chi.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), these exercises should be done once or twice a day, plus any time you feel your joints becoming stiff. Before deciding on which range-of-motion exercises would be best for you, you should first speak with your RA specialist or physical therapist.

Cardiovascular Exercises

Cardiovascular exercises are activities that improve the strength of your heart and its ability to beat stronger for longer periods of time. Also, when you engage in cardiovascular activities, your heart and lungs are also working harder so these exercises can improve blood flow, burn calories, and lower blood pressure. Cardiovascular exercises also help decrease LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good stuff).

There are some fairly rough cardiovascular exercises out there, so you really should speak with your doctor before beginning any routine. Usually, it is a safe bet that your doctor will suggest that you begin at a slower pace, such as walking, versus strenuous cardiovascular exercises, such as running. After talking with your doctor to determine your target heart rate, you will generally try to reach and maintain this rate for about 15 minutes.

Keep in mind that your initial goal should be simply to engage in cardiovascular exercises and later on your goal will be attaining your target heart rate. Instead of trying to work out at your maximum heart rate, your goal starting out should be just to slowly build up the time you spend on your cardiovascular workouts.

Final Note

If you apply and practice these principles early on then you may be able to prevent or slow the progression of arthritis. If nothing else, you will experience a sense of well-being, a rush of confidence, and more energy than you ever imagined possible. Always remember that good health care isn’t just something that medical professionals give to us -- the best care can be something that we give ourselves, along with good food, nourishment, laughter, and even a bit of fun!

Never try any medical advice without first consulting with your doctor, RA specialist, or physical therapist. Patients with RA are much more prone to injury during exercises than individuals without RA. Your doctor will definitely be able to suggest exactly which exercises you should try and may even be able to help you track your progress or record any patterns in your flare-ups.

Additional Resources

American College of Rheumatology:

Arthritis Foundation:
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: