For many people with rheumatoid arthritis, medication can help relieve symptoms and even limit joint damage. But nondrug approaches, such as physical and occupational therapy, are also essential to help reduce pain, improve range of motion, increase strength, and protect joints.
Specially trained clinicians can provide these nondrug treatments. Your primary care doctor or rheumatologist may refer you to a physiatrist, physical therapist, or occupational therapist, for example.
A physiatrist is a medical doctor who treats injuries or illnesses that affect how you move, including rheumatoid arthritis. He or she will perform an assessment and put together a treatment program designed just for you.
Physical therapists help patients reduce their pain and restore and maintain their mobility through an individualized exercise program. The exercises are designed to both build muscle to support affected joints and maintain joint flexibility. Physical therapy can take place at a hospital or outpatient clinic, in the therapist's office, or in your home. Some activities can be done on your own; others require the therapist's assistance.
Occupational therapists teach people how to perform day-to-day tasks and activities both at home (such as preparing meals, maintaining personal hygiene, and using utensils) and at work (such as typing) in a way that's easy on their affected joints.
For example, for those times when your joints are particularly tender, an occupational therapist can show you how to use a splint, brace, sling, elastic bandage, or cane to reduce the pressure on your joints and protect them from further injury.
Specialized equipment (called assistive devices) is also available to help with many daily activities — for example, dressing, eating, cooking, and using the bathroom. An occupational therapist can help you find the right assistive devices for you and teach you how to use them.
To learn more about how to protect your joints, reduce pain, and improve mobility, buy Rheumatoid Arthritis, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.