Physical Therapy Goals for Arthritis Patients

Many patients find physical therapy an essential part of arthritis treatment. Physical therapy can help patients cope with pain and disability caused by arthritis. Because there is no cure for arthritis, the focus of treatment is on disease management.

Physical therapist working with a woman's knee
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A patient’s doctor and physical therapist work together to define goals for physical therapy. The patient’s input is necessary, too, to establish priorities—in other words, what the patient feels he or she should be able to do. Together, the physical therapist and the patient work toward what is realistically achievable.

The condition of the patient’s joints (including strength, flexibility, and deformity), as well as muscle strength, physical endurance, and balance must be considered when a treatment plan is developed for physical therapy. These factors are usually referred to as “activities of daily living,” or ADLs. By setting goals and working hard at physical therapy, patients can usually improve physical function, which will enhance their ability to perform daily living activities.

Exercise Is Beneficial

An appropriate exercise plan can reduce joint pain and stiffness while improving muscle strength, joint flexibility, balance, coordination, and endurance. What is appropriate exercise? An exercise program that takes into consideration physical limitations and plans for gradual improvement is best. A physical therapist is able to assess each patient individually and teach them how to perform range-of-motion exercises, strengthening exercises, and aerobic exercises.​

Joint Protection Techniques Ease Symptoms

Joint protection is important for improving joint mobility and decreasing the risk of joint deformity. It’s important to avoid unnecessary stress and strain on the joints. To reduce stress on the joints, patients should try to maintain or improve muscle strength and be aware of body position when moving.

There is a lot you can do to protect your joints—most of which is common sense.​ It is important to not overdo activities, to move around before becoming too stiff, and to use assistive devices and adaptive equipment. In order to protect arthritic joints, it’s also equally important for patients to maintain or improve flexibility along with muscle strength.

Proper Body Mechanics Are Important

Body mechanics refer to how a person moves. Correct body position helps to reduce joint and muscle pain, stress and strain on the joints, and the risk of injury. Everyone should be conscious of their movements as they walk, sit, stand, lift, reach, and even sleep! Good posture and proper alignment are essential. A physical therapist can help improve awareness of proper body mechanics.

Heat or Ice Can Decrease Pain and Inflammation

Heat or ice can be soothing and relieve the discomfort associated with joint pain or muscular aches. Patients often ask which is better—heat or ice. For the most part, it depends on the type of arthritis as well as what joints or muscles are symptomatic (painful, swollen, or inflamed). Some patients prefer heat to ice, or vice versa. A physical therapist can help you discover which is more effective, and in what order.

Assistive Devices Make Everyday Tasks Less Challenging

Arthritis causes joint pain, muscle weakness, limited range of motion, and, in some cases, joint deformity. With restricted movement and pain upon movement, simple tasks are made more difficult. There are many assistive devices that have been specially designed to compensate for lost range of motion and enhance joint protection. Physical therapists and occupational therapists help patients identify activities that are most difficult and help find solutions. Assistive devices are available to help with nearly every activity of daily living.​

Conserving Energy Is Key to Pain Management

Overdoing activities can make a patient feel “spent.” Pain, stiffness, fatigue—all increase when activity is not balanced with rest. A patient must be aware of what is “too much” and learn to stop before reaching that point. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. A physical therapist can help you define your limitations and consciously pace your activities.​

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kolasinski SL, Neogi T, Hochberg MC, et al. 2019 American College of Rheumatology/Arthritis Foundation Guideline for the management of osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2020;72(2):149-162. doi:10.1002/acr.24131

  2. University of Washington Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. Physical therapy for arthritis.

  3. Arthritis Foundation. Adapting your house when you have arthritis.

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.