In most cases, physical therapy is beneficial for people with osteoarthritis. While it does not repair joint damage, it can decrease certain symptoms and improve functioning.

Osteoarthritis is a type of joint disease that involves the breakdown of the cartilage within the joint. It often occurs gradually and can worsen over time.

Osteoarthritis is very common, affecting over 32.5 million U.S. adults.

Doctors may recommend different ways to treat and manage osteoarthritis, including physical therapy. Physical therapy can help ease symptoms of osteoarthritis, such as pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility, and improve a person’s quality of life.

In this article, we discuss how physical therapy may help with osteoarthritis, provide examples of exercises, and highlight other treatment options.

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Physical therapy can help with osteoarthritis. Doctors often recommend exercise and physical therapy to help with osteoarthritis. In fact, physical therapy is the most common and most effective nonmedication or nonsurgical treatment for osteoarthritis.

The type of physical therapy treatment may depend on the severity of symptoms and the joint involved. The most commonly affected areas include:

  • hands
  • knees
  • hips
  • lower back
  • neck

In some instances, physical therapy may help reduce the amount of medication people take to manage pain. Physical therapy may work as effectively or more so than common medications used to treat arthritis, such as steroids.

A 2020 randomized trial compared people doing physical therapy with those taking steroid injections. The study involved 156 individuals split into two groups. After 1 year, the group that had physical therapy reported less pain and functional disability than the people who had steroid injections.

In some cases, a doctor may also recommend that a person uses steroid injections alongside physical therapy.

Exercises for osteoarthritis often include neuromuscular exercises, which help improve joint stability and function. These types of exercises may involve using:

  • weight machines
  • resistance bands
  • body weight
  • exercise balls

A wide range of exercises are available for osteoarthritis. The exact exercises for someone with osteoarthritis and intensity level will vary. The best exercise selection may depend on a person’s age, coexisting medical conditions, and balance ability.

In general, helpful exercises for osteoarthritis may include:

  • step-ups
  • chair stands
  • straight leg raises
  • standing hip abduction
  • hamstring stretch

Physical therapy can benefit people with osteoarthritis in several ways, such as:

  • Decreases joint pain: Physical therapy exercises may help reduce stiffness. Proper exercises help improve circulation and increase blood flow. This may reduce pain and stiffness in the joint.
  • Improves range of motion: Physical therapy can help increase flexibility, which improves the range of motion. Maintaining range of motion helps with performing everyday activities.
  • Strengthens supporting muscles: Exercising the muscles that support a joint can help reduce pain and improve functioning. For instance, strengthening the quadriceps and hamstrings helps provide support for the knee.
  • Promotes stability and balance: According to a 2018 article, people with osteoarthritis may have issues with muscle strength, joint stability, and movement. All of the factors above play a role in balance. Physical therapy can help improve these areas, which may promote better balance and stability.

Potential risks of physical therapy decrease when working with a qualified and licensed physical therapist. But possible risks of physical therapy may include:

  • increased muscle soreness from exercises
  • no improvement in functioning
  • worsening joint pain

In addition to physical therapy, other types of treatments are available to help osteoarthritis, including the following:

  • Medication: Certain over-the-counter and prescription medications may also decrease pain and inflammation. Options include steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Joint replacement: Some people may opt for surgery to replace the affected joint.
  • Supportive devices: Supportive devices, such as a cane or walker, may help improve a person’s ability to walk safely.
  • Heat and cold therapy: Hot and cold therapy may ease osteoarthritis pain. Heat opens up the blood vessels, which promotes blood flow and may reduce stiffness. Cold therapy might decrease inflammation, which may reduce pain.

In addition to treatment, there are ways to manage osteoarthritis to decrease pain and improve quality of life. Becoming educated on osteoarthritis is the first step in helping to manage the condition effectively.

Although everyone is different, some general tips for managing osteoarthritis include the following:

  • Staying active: Staying active, such as getting regular exercise, helps maintain strength and flexibility. An exercise program should include range of motion exercises, strengthening, and balance exercises.
  • Choosing the right activities: Exercises that do not place additional stress on the joints are a good option. For example, exercises in water help work the muscles without stressing the joints. Low impact activities, such as walking and cycling, are also good choices.
  • Losing weight if overweight: According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, managing weight and keeping it within a healthy range can ease the stress on the joints and reduce pain.

Physical therapy is often beneficial for people with osteoarthritis. Physical therapy may help improve mobility, ease stiffness, increase range of motion, and strengthen the muscles supporting the joints.

In addition to physical therapy, treatment for osteoarthritis may include medication and, in some cases, joint replacement. Other ways to manage osteoarthritis include maintaining a healthy weight, using supportive devices as necessary, and staying active.