Why People With Lupus Need Physical Therapy

Reduce Pain and Stiffness

Physical therapy (PT) is an important and effective way to deal with one of the primary symptoms of lupus: joint pain and arthritis. If you suffer from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), you may work with a physical therapist to help restore your physical function, improve your mobility, relieve your pain, and prevent or limit any permanent physical disability.

Physical therapist guiding woman pulling resistance band overhead
Trevor Adeline / Caiaimage / Getty Images

What Happens During Physical Therapy

The overall goal of your physical therapy will be to restore, maintain and promote your musculoskeletal fitness and health. Physical therapy should reduce your pain and inflammation, help you feel less stiff and keep you mobile.

After examining your medical history, the physical therapist will test your:

  • strength
  • range of motion
  • balance and coordination
  • posture
  • muscle performance
  • respiration
  • motor function

Based on these tests, the therapist will develop a customized treatment plan to help you overcome physical obstacles from the disease.

Physical therapy treatment for lupus often includes exercise to increase flexibility and range of motion. As you continue with your therapy, more advanced exercises will also focus on improving:

  • strength
  • balance
  • coordination
  • endurance

Some of your physical therapy may take place in a pool. The water is a great place to exercise inflamed joints because it's buoyant and soothing.

Your physical therapist can also help you learn how to best use a cane or a walker if they are needed.

Aerobic Exercise and Lupus

Some of the exercises you do in physical therapy might be aerobic, especially if your lupus is relatively mild. People with lupus tend to exercise less and have lower endurance than people who do not have the health condition. Aerobic exercise has been shown to help people with mild lupus improve aerobic capacity and feel less fatigued. It may also help to improve blood vessel function.

Physical Therapy and Pain 

If you have pain after your physical therapy session that lasts more than 1 to 1.5 hours, talk to your physical therapist. He or she should adjust your exercises to make them less intense and/or shorter in duration.

Other Techniques Physical Therapists Use With Lupus Patients

Electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses and ultrasound may be used to relieve pain and reduce swelling.

Massage therapy can relieve pain and improve circulation and flexibility.

How to Choose a Physical Therapist

Most licensed physical therapists have a doctorate degree, though some may just have a master’s degree from an accredited physical therapy program. Physical therapists study biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques, and therapeutic procedures.

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By Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH
Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH, is a medical writer and program development manager at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities.