Management of Arthritic Conditions – Role of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists (OTs) can play an important role in the management of arthritis. Early OT intervention in the management of both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis can assist in limiting ligament and joint damage, while maximizing functional use of the hand and upper extremity. In addition to hand-specific conditions, many people suffering from systemic (generalized) arthritis affecting their ability to perform lower body self-care activities, such as bathing and dressing, can benefit from one to two sessions of OT for education about adaptive equipment available to improve or maintain independence.

People diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are at risk of developing extremely disabling deformities in their wrists and hands. OTs can provide important information about ways in which progression of the deformities may be slowed, and compensated for, to maximize their ability to maintain independence and involvement in everyday activities despite the disease. Splints can be used to correct or postpone development of deformities and to improve motion, stability, and function. Exercise plays a very important role in maintaining range of motion, strength, and function, but needs to be done safely. The OT can teach safe but effective ways in which to exercise the muscles of the hands and upper extremities and also provide information on general conditioning programs.

Osteoarthritis – often referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis can be extremely debilitating and significantly impact a person’s ability to perform their daily activities. An OT can work with individuals who are noticing mild difficulties or discomfort during or after specific activities as well as individuals who are experiencing debilitating symptoms. Again, intervention is focused on regaining or maintaining a maximum level of function and quality of life. As with RA, safe exercise is very important and helpful and again, an appropriate exercise program can be prescribed to address functional problems. Patients are educated about the disease, principles of joint protection, and how to apply these to their daily activities. Use of adaptive equipment and assertive devises is discussed and when appropriate, practiced within the clinic setting. Again, splints can be used to correct or prevent deformities and imbalances, and splints or braces can be used to improve hand function.

Every person is different and thus treatment plans need to be customized to address their specific areas of difficulty. However, it can be helpful to be aware of general principles of joint protection and apply them as much as possible to regular daily activities.