Arthritis: Movement is Medicine

Arthritis may seem relatively benign – everyone knows someone who has arthritis. But here are some numbers that help put the problem of arthritis into perspective:

  • Arthritis is the leading cause of disability.
  • Arthritis affects 1 in 5 adults and 300,000 children
  • 1/3 of working-age people with arthritis have some kind of limitation in their ability to compete their work tasks
  • Arthritis costs $156 billion each year in medical expenses and lost wages
  • Nearly 1 million hospitalizations happen each year due to arthritis

Clearly, arthritis is a serious condition, and a serious problem. The good news is that physical therapy is one of the most effective treatments for arthritis.

The Benefits of Physical Therapy for Managing Arthritis Symptoms

Arthritis comes in 2 forms: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs because of wear and tear on the joints over time. Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory, autoimmune disease. It occurs because of the immune system attacking the joint lining. For either type of arthritis, physical therapy treatment can reduce joint pain, improve mobility, and help to prevent further damage to the joints. Using individualized exercises, physical therapists help people manage their condition and reduce discomfort. Physical therapists often combine advice on lifestyle modifications with exercise to maximize improvement. Let’s look at the types of exercise that can help manage arthritis symptoms next.

Range of Motion Exercises

These gently move affected joints through their entire available range of motion. This can help reduce stiffness and improve mobility. Examples would include things like gentle stretching, tai chi, or gentle yoga.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise creates repeated motion, moving the synovial fluid in the joints, which reduces stiffness. It also increases blood flow and releases endorphins which reduce pain. Aerobic exercise also helps to control weight. Weight loss is proven to reduce the stress on your joints, which can reduce pain. Aerobic exercise for people with arthritis should often be low impact. This would include things like walking, cycling, or swimming.

Strength Training

Strength training is an important part of managing arthritis. Having good muscle strength decreases joint pain and improves function. Stronger muscles around the affected joints provide better support and protection.  Good strength also limits the risk of falls.

Aquatic Exercise

Exercising in a therapeutic pool can be a great way for people with arthritis to get started. The buoyancy of the water helps to relieve some of the body’s pressure on the joints. The water pressure also provides compression on the joints. This offers some stability and pain relief. The movement of your body through the water creates resistance for your muscles. This allows them to get stronger in a protective environment.


Besides designing a custom exercise program, a physical therapist will educate people with arthritis on lifestyle modifications to help manage their symptoms. Some suggestions might include weight loss, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress. A PT can also modify daily activities to help protect joints affected by arthritis. This can slow down or prevent progression of symptoms.

Manual Therapy

Physical therapists that specialize in orthopedics and in manual therapy utilize a wide array of hands-on treatments – including joint and soft-tissue mobilization and assisted stretching and movement – that help patients to improve joint motion and mechanics.  Improving joint function reduces pain and helps patients to move more efficiently, which can slow the progression of arthritic symptoms and also help patients to maintain optimal participation in typical daily activities and recreational pursuits.

Working with a physical therapist is a safe and effective way to treat and manage arthritis. Current clinical research studies include strong recommendations for exercise and other physical therapy treatments. If you’re one of the 53 million Americans with arthritis, give your PT a call. They’re a great provider to help you reduce pain, manage your symptoms, and move better.


  1. Research (peer-reviewed)
    1. Knee osteoarthritis: key treatments and implications for physical therapy-
    1. Osteoarthritis Management: Updated Guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology and Arthritis Foundation –
    1. Physical therapy for patients with knee and hip osteoarthritis: supervised, active treatment is current best practice –
  2. Articles and Content
    1. May Is National Arthritis Awareness Month – News

Benefits of Exercise for Osteoarthritis | Arthritis FoundationHow Can Physical Therapy Help to Avoid Surgery? – Tucson Orthopaedic Institute