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Osteoarthritis: Can physiotherapy help?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common natural occurring degenerative conditions of the body’s joints affecting people of all ages however it is more prevalent as we age. It is characterized primarily by a loss of cartilage around a joint, which helps to provide smooth gliding of a joint, and results in pain and swelling as the joint loses its ability to work in a smooth fluid process.

It can any joint in the body however the body’s major weight bearing joints such as the knees, hips, lumbar spine and ankles are more commonly affected than others. Pain is the most common symptom for many due to the following:

  • Joints lose their natural contour and shape developing irregular bone spurs called osteophytes
  • A reduction in the stability of joint occurs which can alter the natural alignment of the joint
  • Muscular atrophy and weakness affecting the ability to walk long distances and walk up/down stairs
  • The loss of cartilage reduces a joints ability to ‘shock absorb’.

This form of arthritis affects men and women however men are generally affected more if under the age of 55 and women more so after the age of 55.

Can you prevent or cure osteoarthritis?

The simple answer is no, it cannot be cured however it can be effectively managed to the point where you can still lead a healthy life and do the things you wish to provided you are guided in the right direction. There are specific risk factors, however, which can affect your chances of developing osteoarthritis:

  • Obesity: Maintaining an ideal weight or reducing excessive weight may help in prevent osteoarthritis of spine, hips and knees. Effective weight loss can also reduce the progression of the disease once it is established.
  •  Joint injury: If you are exposed to injury or illness as a result of workplace habits, contact sport or accidents you can increase your risk of developing the disease. For example, workers who are exposed to repetitive heavy lifting are more likely to develop osteoarthritis than someone who is not exposed to these habits.
  • Hereditary: Some people have an inherited defect in one of the genes responsible for making cartilage. This can lead to a more rapid degeneration in joint cartilage. People who are born with or develop abnormal spinal curvatures (such as scoliosis) are more likely to develop osteoarthritis as they age.
  • Age: While ageing is a risk factor, osteoarthritis is not an inevitable part of aging.

How can physiotherapy assist in treating osteoarthritis?

So, how can you help yourself to help your body? Physiotherapy is very useful in the management of mild or aggressive states of osteoarthritis. There are certain treatment types which patients will find useful.

1)      Strength and stability exercise program: Specific exercises targeting strength and stability of an affected joint can provide symptomatic relief. While general exercise is beneficial in an individual’s overall health, it may be more effective if targeting the specific ailments affecting a joint. For example, knee strengthening exercises for an arthritic knee can reduce the amount of sheering occurring within the joint, provide more stability around the joint, and increase the endurance of the knee.

2)      Prescribe appropriate bracing of a joint: wearing an appropriate brace can provide a joint more support, reduce the swelling and provide instant symptomatic relief.

3)      Manual therapy and electrotherapy:  Physiotherapists can apply their manual therapy skills to reduce the amount of muscle tightness and tension that can surround an arthritic joint. This can also assist in reducing the amount of swelling by flushing it back into the lymphatic system. Electrotherapy such as TENS and ultrasound technology may also be used in effective pain and swelling management. It can alter the neuro-modulating systems of the body to reduce the receptors responsible for stimulating a pain response.

 4)     Provide postural advice to reduce pain: Simple tasks such as bending and standing appropriately may be effective in providing relief of osteoarthritis symptoms. Understanding how to avoid unnecessary stress on your lumbar spine or knee may prevent the pain associated with awkward bending and poor posture. While poor posture is associated with behavioral habits and body type, you are more likely to develop symptoms of osteoarthritis when you load your joints unnecessarily.

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