“You have arthritis.” Those are words no one ever wants to hear. So what caused it? What do you do about it? Can physical therapy actually help me? Can you still keep up with your usual physical activities? Below, I will briefly answer each question.
What caused it?
Arthritis can occur due to a number of reasons. Genetics does play a role in it, but it is not the only factor. Trauma can lead to arthritis. For example, if you had an injury as a teenager or young adult to one of your joints, the sheer trauma can lead to arthritis down the road if you did not seek proper medical care. Faulty body mechanics or improper biomechanics with sports such as running or football can lead to the development of arthritis down the road. If you continually move a joint in a way that it is not supposed to move, this will lead to arthritic changes.
What can you do about it?
There are quite a few options, and each option will vary based on your specific condition. If your condition is early stages, physical therapy is a great option. In physical therapy, we focus on correcting the faulty body mechanics or strength imbalances to prevent further deterioration. If you have advanced arthritis and it is impacting your daily life, surgery may be an option. However, surgery is something you should discuss with your doctor.
How can physical therapy help me?
In a nutshell, we will stretch what is tight and strengthen what is weak. Doing this will allow your joint to move better. Here is an example of how this works: let’s say someone has been diagnosed with arthritis in their knee. First, we need to stretch the tight muscles at the knee joint. The hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thigh) attach below the knee. If you have tight hamstrings, they will compress the knee joint. By compressing the knee joint, those irregularly shaped surfaces in your knee will be mashed together and rub whenever you are walking. The same applies to your calf muscles. Your calf (gastrocnemius) attaches above the knee. So just imagine the amount of compression on your knee joint if you have both tight calves and tight hamstrings.
Next, we will strengthen what is weak. By strengthening the muscles around your knees, this will allow the joint to move easier. People with knee arthritis typically have weaker quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your thighs). We will also work on other areas of weakness. For instance, if you have weak hip abductors (the muscles responsible for moving your legs out to the side as with a jumping jack), this tends to lead to compensations at the knee joint. Compensations tend to lead to increased pressure in nearby joints, therefore potentially increasing and contributing to arthritic pain.
By stretching the tight muscles and strengthening the weaker ones, this will allow your joint to move easier. By doing so, this will decrease unnecessary stresses on your joint which should allow for a decreased pain level and/or better performance of activities.
Can I still keep up with my usual activities?
This is a loaded question because each person’s case will vary. Let’s look at one scenario: 40 year old female runner with knee arthritis. After physical therapy, her muscle imbalances have hopefully been corrected. If she is able to run pain-free, then running is certainly in her future. However, if she continues to have pain with running, it would be best to switch to a cardiovascular activity that does not impact her joints quite as much such as cycling or the elliptical.
The above answers are very generalized. Of course, each person will be different. If you have any questions about arthritis, whether it be about prevention or therapy after diagnosis, please feel free to schedule an appointment with us at Scott Family Health. We are more than happy to answer any and all of your questions!
Leslie Dallas, PT, DPT, brings advanced training, deep clinical experience, and a compassionate approach to the care of her patients at Scott Family Health. She has her Doctor of Physical Therapy from the University of Saint Augustine, Bachelor of Science from Georgia Southwestern State University, and her Manual Therapy Certification. Leslie is also an avid runner who has competed in marathons, half-marathons, and too many 5K’s to count.