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Osteoarthritis and You – How Physical Therapy Can Prevent Surgery

It’s no secret that our bodies take a beating each day as we age. Some people are lucky – maybe some back pain here and there, sore feet after a long workday, or stress-induced headaches caused by the kids. Others don’t have that luck. Osteoarthritis (osteo = bone, arthritis = stiffness/swelling) affects 54-million Americans in some capacity everyday. Some people have more mild cases, but others are more severely impacted by it.

Just because you’re diagnosed with osteoarthritis, doesn’t mean surgery has to be the next move. Here are some of the major things things I am going to talk about within the article:

● What osteoarthritis is
● How osteoarthritis can contribute to your everyday life if not treated appropriately
● How physical therapists can help to prevent a replacement surgery if you have osteoarthritis
● What you can do to get the help of a physical therapist if you have osteoarthritis

So, what’s “Osteoarthritis?”

When you hear the phrase “osteoarthritis,” think of “degeneration.” As we age, the shock-absorbing pads between joints, called cartilage, wear down, and unfortunately does not grow back. When this cartilage wears down, “bone-on-bone” occurs1. Voila! Bone stiffness due to the fact that this cartilage is no longer preventing the two bones in the joint from hitting each other with each movement. The average American takes approximately 6,000 steps per day. Imagine walking 6,000 steps while having nothing to stop the leg bone and the shin bone from compressing each other with every single step. Not fun.

With that said, we as physical therapists frequently hear this when a patient with osteoarthritis comes in for the first time: “My knee has been bad for a really long time. Doc said go to therapy for a few weeks and see if anything changes, but they said I’m going to have to get it replaced either way.” Ugh! This is a common misconception. Maybe you feel like walking a mile will never be easy or pain-free because of your knee. Perhaps your hip yells at you when you try to go up the stairs. You might be thinking that because of your shoulder, you will never be able to pick up some of those groceries and put them on the overhead shelf. Well let me tell you that multiple studies confirm that appropriate physical therapy can indeed reduce symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. But how can physical therapists help to reduce your pain if your cartilage doesn’t grow back?

If I have “bone-on-bone,” how can I possibly get better without surgery?

Aging involves not only the cartilage within each joint to wear down, but also influences the muscles around the joint to weaken. Think of the knee as an example – you have two sides of your body, front and back, each with unique muscles allowing you to move properly. Ideally, the front and back muscles are in a 50/50 split and are working harmoniously together every time you need to move. More times than not, this is not the case. If the front muscles are doing the brunt of the work, then the back muscles can become weak (and vice-versa). When a muscle imbalance like this occurs, the joint is vulnerable to different types of stress that can irritate it and accelerate the degeneration of the precious cartilage.

There’s where we come in. My job as a physical therapist is to restore your everyday function by giving your muscles, bones, joint, etc. balance. If we can work together to restore that 50/50 muscle split I talked about before, your knee, hip, or shoulder will thank you. This restoration is unique to every individual who comes in. Maybe one hip is higher than the other, the shoulder blade doesn’t move the way it should, or your knee is working overtime because of tight hamstrings. Our box-o’-tools consists of therapeutic exercise, stretching, and hands-on therapy to really target the specific area that is bothering you, but before we can give you a solid plan of care, we need to figure out why your knee, hip, or shoulder became damaged in the first place. Once we figure out this, then we’re off to the races together toward a pain-free life.

In conclusion, physical therapists can indeed help you to reduce your pain if you have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Surgery does not and should not be the first and only answer! We can work together to get you stronger without having you go through a joint-replacement and reduce and alleviate your pain! Osteoarthritis is not a death sentence and we can help you to get back on track without having to have surgery.

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and are interested in being able to walk for longer periods of time, go up and down stairs with less difficulty, or want to be able to reach overhead, for a limited time, Buffalo Rehab Group is offering free consultations by our Physical Therapists.

1. Osteoarthritis – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prognosis & Treatment. Health Jade. https://healthjade.com/osteoarthritis/. Published January 9, 2018. Accessed May 28, 2019.
2. Fransen M, Crosbie J, Edmunds J. Physical Therapy Is Effective for Patients with Osteoarthritis of the Knee: a Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. The Journal of Rheumatology. 2000;28(1):158-164.