Living with arthritis can be frustrating. Painful, stiff joints can make simple tasks like cooking, getting dressed, or even turning a doorknob into challenges. If you're suffering from arthritis, your doctor may have recommended occupational therapy. But what does occupational therapy for arthritis involve? And how can it help?
What Is Occupational Therapy?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 30 million adults in the United States suffer from arthritis. Along with medication and physical therapy, occupational therapy is often one of the first things doctors recommend for arthritis patients. Most doctors recommend working with an occupational therapist as soon as possible, ideally not long after your diagnosis.
The goal of occupational therapy for arthritis patients is to improve your quality of life. While a physical therapist primarily treats your physical symptoms and pain, an occupational therapist works with you to enhance your ability to perform the functional activities of daily life that you need to do at work, school, or home independently and safely. Occupational therapists work with you one-on-one to increase or preserve your mobility, teach you strategies to manage your pain, and show you adaptive tools and techniques to avoid further injury.
What to Expect From Occupational Therapy for Arthritis
Your first visit starts with an evaluation. The occupational therapist will ask about your daily activities to figure out what you need to do during the day and how arthritis affects your ability to carry out those activities. They'll assess your ability to perform those activities, as well as your range of motion, muscle strength, and pain level. They'll also evaluate your home or work space to determine if they can recommend modifications that will make your daily activities easier.
Based on the assessment, the occupational therapist will work with you to create an intervention plan. Your plan may include:
- Pain management strategies such as heat and cold therapy
- Inflammation management techniques like limb elevation, compression garments, splints, and exercise
- Therapeutic exercises to improve range of motion, strength, balance, and gross and fine motor skills
- Recommendations for assistive or orthotic devices to help ease joint pain and/or improve function
- Joint protection strategies to avoid overuse, fatigue, and further injury
- Modifications to your home, work, or school environment to make it easier to do daily tasks without aggravating your arthritis
For example, if you experience pain during or after activities, an occupational therapist may suggest applying heat to your joints before taking part in an activity. If you experience pain before or during sleep, the recommendation might be to elevate your arms or legs at night. They may teach you how to use tools like compression socks or recommend custom splints to ease joint pain. The occupational therapist might also recommend grab bars in the bathroom or adjustable shelves in the kitchen to help you maintain your independence despite decreased strength or mobility due to arthritis.
Depending on your individual symptoms, you'll likely meet with the occupational therapist a few times. However, since arthritis is a chronic disease, your symptoms may change over time. If you encounter new challenges due to changing symptoms, you may need to follow up with your occupational therapist to come up with new strategies for managing your symptoms.
While occupational therapy for arthritis may sound daunting, it can be a key part of managing your symptoms and living a full life. An occupational therapist can recommend strategies customized to you, your needs, and your environment that can help you participate in the activities you care most about. If you have questions, talk to your doctor.