I was recently diagnosed with RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) and, at this point, I have chosen to not take the medications because, honestly, the side effects scare me. I may change my mind later but for now, I am choosing to try other options. One of my first management methods to try is physical therapy.
[NOTE: I am not a medical professional of any sort. This is just my experience and my RA journey. Educate yourself and talk to your doctor before deciding your path of treatment.]
Physical Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
I did not realize you could get physical therapy for RA, but you can. My primary goal with PT was to learn how to exercise and workout without causing more damage to my joints. It is important that you find a physical therapist that is familiar with RA because this can make all the difference.
Previously I have had physical therapy as rehabilitation for my knee after surgery. This was a treatment that eventually led to healing and a completion point. With RA, my therapist set other types of goals for my treatment which included progress markers to report to my insurance company. Instead of a completion point, there were several goals I needed to reach to have a full workout routine that I could continue doing on my own at home.
Physical Therapy Goals for My RA
My goals for physical therapy included range of motion and flexibility as well as strengthening the muscles around all my joints and core. These goals required strength training, cardio training, and stretches. My therapist made sure I got a full body workout each visit. However, each of my exercises was designed and performed in a way that did not put stress on my joints. My physical therapist also worked around my RA flares and days when some of my joints were too painful to exercise, but let’s talk about what I could do first.
My Physical Therapy Plan
When I started, I was always stiff with constant pain in my wrists, hips, knees, and ankles. Mornings were difficult for me when I first got up and started walking, and my RA fatigue required me to take a nap just to make it to dinner. The thought of an actual workout was overwhelming to me. But, I did it anyway because I was tired of feeling unhealthy and not very mobile. At first, it was exhausting, and I had to lay down and sleep as soon as I got home.
Cardio was tricky for me because I have a chronically bad back from a car accident years ago and my knee keeps me from running or doing other cardio type exercise both low and high impact. Add my RA to these issues and cardio was definitely a challenge for me. Thankfully the physical therapy place has a recumbent step machine, and it was perfect! I achieved a cardio workout with zero impact on any joints and no pain to my back.
The strength training and flexibility exercises were the hardest for me. In the years (yes, years) leading up to my eventual diagnosis, my workout routine was almost non-existent except for walking. That left me with weak muscles and my flexibility was (and still is) just a joke. But I did it and, I eventually, I started noticing a change. I am not as stiff in the mornings, and my pain has been noticeably reduced. Some of my joints don’t hurt at all some days. However, the best part for me is the energy. After a few weeks of going to PT, I realized that I wasn’t needing a nap every day and had energy left over!
RA Flare Days and Physical Therapy
After 7 weeks of physical therapy, I do still have “flare” days and days when my joints just hurt, but not as often. When bad days happen on a PT day, my therapist will adjust the plan. We skip exercises that use the hurting joints and focus more on other exercises. Some days my PT time was spent with my therapist stretching my joints and using some therapeutic massage techniques to help with the pain and stiffness. Then, the next time it was usually back to my usual workout.
This week I will complete my eight weeks that were allowed by my insurance. It was nice to have the accountability of going to physical therapy and having someone push me to do all my exercises. However, I am now equipped with exercises and stretches that I can do at home so that I can keep progressing. I have my own accountability group around me of family and friends that will, hopefully, keep me doing my workouts regularly. For now, these exercises along with other options I have chosen are helping my RA symptoms. If and when they no longer help, I will consider other options, and eventually, I will probably need to start on the medication, but I am just not ready for that yet.
What helps your RA symptoms the most? Share with me in the comments below.