Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects approximately 1% of the United States population. RA often results in pain and inflammation in joints on both sides of the body, and can become disabling due to its effect on the immune system. A physical therapist can help manage the symptoms of RA, enhancing an individual's quality of life.
RA is classified as an autoimmune disease—a condition where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. Although the exact cause of RA is not known, multiple theories have been proposed to identify who is most likely to develop it. The cause may be related to a combination of genetics and environmental or hormonal factors. Women are more likely to develop the disease; women are diagnosed with RA 3 times more than men. Although RA may begin at any age, most research suggests it often begins in midlife.
How Does it Feel?
RA symptoms can flare up and then quiet down (go into remission). Research shows that early diagnosis and treatment is important for easing symptoms and flare-ups.
People with RA may experience:
- Stiff joints that feel worse in the morning.
- Painful and swollen joints on both sides of the body.
- Bouts of fatigue and general discomfort.
- Loss of joint function.
- Redness, warmth, and tenderness in the joint areas.
How Is It Diagnosed?
RA is generally diagnosed by a rheumatologist. Diagnosis is based upon factors, such as inflammation of the tissues that line the joints, the number of joints involved, and blood-test results. A physical therapist may be the first practitioner to recognize the onset of RA; the physical therapist will refer an individual with suspected symptoms to an appropriate clinician for further tests.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Physical therapists play a vital role in improving and maintaining function that may be limited by RA. Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan to help address your specific needs and goals.
Because the signs and symptoms of RA can vary, the approach to care will also vary. Your physical therapist may provide the following recommendations and care:
Aerobic Activities. Studies have shown that group-based exercise and educational programs for people with RA have beneficial effects on individual strength and function.
Goal-Oriented Exercise. Studies also show that achievement of personal physical activity goals helps reduce pain and increase the general quality of life in people diagnosed with RA.
Modalities. Your physical therapist may use modalities, such as gentle heat and electrical stimulation to help manage your RA symptoms.