Various treatments are available for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and the most suitable options will differ among individuals. In some cases, a doctor may recommend physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), or both as part of a person’s treatment plan. These therapies target specific needs for those living with RA.

RA is a chronic inflammatory disease that typically causes pain and swelling in the joints.

Treatment cannot cure RA. However, it can help alleviate the symptoms and improve quality of life.

A doctor may prescribe or recommend medications for managing pain, reducing inflammation, and slowing disease progression. In addition, they may recommend PT and OT to help improve a person’s quality of life.

This article explores how PT and OT can help with improving RA symptoms. It also provides tips on how to find a therapist.

PT helps improve strength and mobility and increase the range of motion in the joints. In short, it focuses on a person’s ability to move, which can include:

  • getting in and out of chairs
  • reaching for items above the head
  • playing sports or engaging in activities
  • climbing the stairs
  • walking around the block

PT involves meeting with a licensed therapist for regular sessions. Most therapists have their doctorate.

During the sessions, the therapist will work on specific exercises that focus on affected joints and movement concerns. They may also demonstrate additional exercises for a person to perform at home.

In addition, they may try other treatment approaches, such as massage therapy and heat-and-cold treatments. Alongside these treatments, they will provide emotional support and encouragement.

OT focuses less on movement and strength and more on modifications that aim to help a person perform daily tasks. A therapist can suggest tools and strategies to decrease discomfort and improve the motor skills necessary for tasks such as:

  • doing the dishes
  • cooking
  • washing laundry
  • completing self-care tasks, including showering and dressing

The therapist will typically tailor the treatment goals and objectives to the person’s unique lifestyle and needs. They will consider the individual’s current abilities, goals, and environment, and they may offer education to family members looking to provide support and promote independence.

They may also recommend other ways to facilitate everyday living, such as:

  • replacing doorknobs, light switches, and other fixtures with assistive devices to help improve independence
  • using ergonomic products
  • rearranging items around the house to provide easier access

Over the years, researchers have shown that PT and OT can help a person living with RA live a more fulfilling, independent life.

In a 2016 review, researchers examined 10 years’ worth of studies. Based on the results, they concluded that both OT and PT interventions were effective in reducing pain.

In a 2020 study, researchers found that exercise was a safe and effective way to increase cognitive function and decrease fatigue for people living with RA. They added that an exercise regimen should form part of the management plan for anyone with this condition. A physical therapist can work with a person to create an exercise plan suited to their needs and abilities.

A 2016 systematic review found strong evidence to support the use of patient education, resistive exercise, joint protection, and other tactics that occupational therapy uses in the treatment of RA.

What to expect during a session

An individual’s experience with a PT or OT program will vary depending on their individual goals and needs. The basic goals of PT and OT services often overlap and may include:

  • increasing strength to support the joints better
  • maintaining fitness
  • restoring joint use
  • improving joint mobility and function
  • preserving the ability to do daily tasks

During a session, a therapist will review a person’s treatment plan. The plan should include specific exercises or tasks that a person needs to do, as well as other steps that they can take to work toward their goals.

A therapist may offer instruction for specific exercises, discuss the person’s progress, and suggest additional changes to the home or routine that may improve quality of life.

They will typically space the sessions out so that they work with the person a few times a week over the course of several weeks or months. Between sessions, a person can practice the exercises that the therapist teaches them.

At follow-up appointments, a person will have the opportunity to make the therapist aware of any issues they are facing or any changes in their symptoms. They can also ask any questions about the therapy or their specific program.

How quickly can a person see results?

A person is unlikely to see results from either PT or OT after just one session. The goal is gradual improvement and a reduction in symptoms.

Although the two types of therapy vary in exactly what they do, the goals are similar. In both cases, a therapist wants to see a person be able to live a more active, fulfilling life.

For the best results, a person will need to consistently practice what their therapist teaches them.

According to an older study from 2011, not everyone living with RA seeks PT or OT services. The researchers found that people living with more severe symptoms, a broader social network, or disability due to RA were much more likely to seek PT or OT care.

However, PT and OT can be beneficial even for those with less severe symptoms. Establishing a suitable exercise routine and adapting the home can help a person manage their symptoms more effectively and improve their quality of life.

A rheumatologist or another doctor may already have provided contact information for recommended PTs or OTs in their network. If not, a person can ask them for their recommendations or suggestions.

In some cases, a person may need a referral for PT or OT services for their insurance. It is advisable to check with the plan provider what is necessary.

The American Physical Therapy Association offers a PT locator. A person needs to provide some basic information about themselves and their needs, and the search tool will help connect them with local therapists.

PT and OT can play an important role in reducing pain, improving strength, and increasing joint mobility. The two services are similar but have distinct differences. PT focuses more on improving movement, whereas OT aims to help a person navigate their daily tasks.

Noticeable results are very unlikely after just one or two sessions. A person needs to spend time consistently working toward their goals and following the recommendations of their therapists to get the best results possible.