Osteoarthritis currently affects as many as 31 million Americans. It is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. However, there are viable treatment options to help manage this condition.
In a normal joint, a type of tissue called cartilage surrounds and protects the ends of each bone. This prevents the bones from touching each other, and helps to absorb shock from movement and pressure. In osteoarthritis, this layer of cartilage begins to gradually wear away due to a number of possible factors. This means that there is less protection and more friction between the bones in the affected joint. Over time, this process can lead to inflammation and damage to many structures within the joint.
Osteoarthritis can develop in just about any joint, but the vast majority of cases occur in the knees and hips. This is because the knees and hips are weight-bearing joints that bear the impact of our body weight. Taking on too much weight or pressure on these joints can cause the cartilage to wear away faster and accelerate the damage. Therefore, being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis in all weight-bearing joints.
The symptoms of hip and knee osteoarthritis are quite similar. Pain, swelling, tenderness, and stiffness in the affected joint can occur. “Popping,” “cracking,” or “grinding” sensations during movement are also common. Pain usually tends to get worse during and after activity, and it is difficult to move the joint through its complete range of motion. The end result is impairment in activities that involve the legs, such as walking, running, standing up from a chair, and ascending or descending stairs.
Only a physical therapist will focus on finding ways to help you move better
If you experience symptoms of knee or hip osteoarthritis, it’s usually safe to say that you need pain relief options. There are a number of arthritis treatments available. These range from the most mild, like simply resting the affected joint, to the most extreme – surgery to replace the damaged joint. But the best possible choice you can make to manage your osteoarthritis is to see a physical therapist.
Physical therapists are movement experts that are trained to help patients move more easily and efficiently. Many interventions claim to relieve pain and improve function. But, only physical therapy will provide you with a comprehensive treatment plan that involves a variety of movement-based strategies to address your deficits and strengthen any areas of weakness. Physical therapy focuses on finding active ways to help you overcome your symptoms. In addition, it helps train you to continue these healthy habits in the long term.
Physical therapy treatment options
Each physical therapy program will differ depending on several factors, including the severity of the osteoarthritis and the age and abilities of the patient. Most interventions fall into one of the following three categories:
- Your therapist may use various physical agents to reduce your pain levels. These may include heat, ice or ultrasound, as well as electrical stimulators or TENS units. Each of these has a different way of helping the body to reduce pain.
- Exercise is central to all physical therapy programs. It is crucial for helping you overcome your impairments and be able to move better. The two primary types of exercise therapy are:
- Stretching exercises. When a knee or hip is affected by arthritis, its flexibility is usually poor compared to the normal side. Stretching will help to improve your ability to bend and straighten your knee or to rotate your hip.
- Strengthening exercises. Lack of movement due to pain can result in muscle weakness and a decreased ability to complete daily tasks. Building the muscles that support the hip or knee leads to less pain and better function. This will be a major focus for most physical therapy treatment plans
This is a hands-on treatment in which the physical therapist will gently move muscles and joints to improve their motion, flexibility, and strength. It can be used to target areas that are difficult to treat on your own. Used in combination with exercise, manual therapy leads to functional progress that can be measured. For example, orthopedic manual therapy combined with exercise led to reduced pain, improved function, and improvements in speed when ascending and descending stairs in people with knee osteoarthritis.
Evidence based treatment
Research has shown that both exercise therapy and manual therapy are effective treatments for patients with hip or knee osteoarthritis. In one study published in 2016, it was found that “An exercise therapy intervention provides short-term as well as long-term benefits in terms of reduction in pain, and improvement in physical function among people with hip osteoarthritis.” Another study published in July of 2018 highlighted how greater participation levels in physical therapy lead to better outcomes for patients with knee osteoarthritis. Its conclusion stated:
“Increased number of physical therapy visits are associated with improved outcomes, and some of this benefit persisted eight months after physical therapy ended.”