Most people think of physical therapy and occupational therapy as something that is needed after an accident or surgery. While one of these is often the impetus behind a therapy referral, there are other common ailments that can be addressed with the proper therapy regimen. Rheumatoid arthritis is one such condition. The disease can be excruciatingly painful and can limit the ability of the patient to perform common tasks. Fortunately, occupational therapy can help patients retain motion and even regain abilities that have been lost due to disease progression.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, is an autoimmune disease. Although the cause is unknown the disease causes the immune system to attack the thin membrane lining the joints, the synovium. This results in fluid building up in the joints which leads to pain and inflammation. RA can occur in any joint, anywhere in the body. Because it can occur anywhere, the effect of the disease is different for each patient. One person may have difficulty walking while another may have problems using their hands. While the disease cannot be cured, there are many treatments than can help patients lead more normal lives.
What are the most common treatments?
The first line of defense in treating rheumatoid arthritis is medication. There are several classes of medications that may be used alone or in tandem to help treat the symptoms of the disease including NSAIDs, steroids, DMARDs, immunosuppressants, and TNF-alpha inhibitors. While no single medication can cure the disease, several have been shown to slow the progression, if administered early, and others offer immediate and long-term relief from the pain associated with the disease.
How can occupational therapy help?
Occupational therapy cannot cure rheumatoid arthritis. What it can do is decrease the severity of the symptoms and help patients’ live more normal lives. Occupational therapists are able to teach patients how to protect their joints in order to limit stress on the joints that are affected by the disease and prevent straining and possibly inflaming those joints through normal use. Therapists may target patient specific tasks to modify in order to provide the most benefit for each patient. Patients who have already lost some degree of motion with the affected joints can improve their range of motion and joint strength. Those who still have a good range of motion will be taught how to preserve that ability with targeted exercises. Splints and other assistive devices may also be used to help prevent or reduce joint strain and to reinforce proper joint alignment.
As an occupational therapist, how often do you work with patients suffering with rheumatoid arthritis? What have you found to be the most effective treatment?