February 5, 2023

Health Mettler Institute

Healthy LifeStyle & Education

Does Physical Therapy Really Help Arthritis Pain?

Physical therapy (PT) is a common treatment for arthritis. When combined with other treatments like medication, physical therapy can be extremely effective in reducing symptoms of arthritis.

This article will discuss how physical therapy, particularly for the larger joints such as the shoulder, hips, and knees can decrease joint pain and improve mobility.

kali9 / Getty Images


Physical Therapy Goals for Arthritis Patients

Arthritis can cause joint pain and swelling, decreased mobility, and limited range of motion. Along with other treatment options, physical therapy can help people with arthritis:

  • Decrease joint pain
  • Improve mobility and range of motion of a joint
  • Strengthen supporting muscles
  • Improve balance and stability

Working closely with a licensed physical therapist and sticking to the treatment plan made by a physical therapist can yield huge benefits in person’s overall well-being and quality of life.

Variations in PT Exercises by Arthritis Type

Physical therapy treatments are tailored to each individual and their condition. A treatment plan for a person with osteoarthritis of the knee may look different than the plan prepared for a person with rheumatoid arthritis affecting the knee. Treatment plans are customized to each individual person based on several factors including:

  • Age
  • Co-morbidities
  • Injury
  • Surgery
  • Physical capabilities
  • Range of motion

Length of Session

The average physical therapy session can last between 45 to 60 minutes. The first appointment typically tends to last longer, around 60 to 90 minutes, as it will take time for the physical therapist to make an assessment of an individual’s condition and determine the appropriate treatment plan.

Estimated Time Frame of Results

Most people can expect to see results from physical therapy within about six weeks of starting treatment. Results depend greatly on several factors including but not limited to:

  • Number of sessions per week attended
  • Adherence to treatment plan both during active sessions and at-home
  • Consistency and effort

Therapy Techniques

Physical therapists use a variety of different techniques to achieve treatment goals for arthritis. Common techniques include:

When Does Physical Therapy Make Arthritis Worse?

Physical therapy should not make arthritis worse. While some soreness is commonly experienced after PT, especially during the first few sessions, if soreness persists or joint pain becomes more severe, it is important to let the physical therapist know. If the therapist is aware of your discomfort then exercises and stretches can be modified to minimize discomfort and maximize long term relief and improvements.

Arthritis Physical Therapy Aftercare

After completing a physical therapy session it is important to rest and not perform any other strenuous activity for the rest of the day. At the end of most PT sessions, ice is typically applied to the joints being worked on for several minutes. Once at home, you can ice the joints again if necessary.

Paying for Physical Therapy

Depending on the level of care that is needed, physical therapy can become a costly expense. Various factors such as number of visits, modalities used, and insurance coverage, all play a role in determining just how much physical therapy can end up costing.

With Insurance

Most insurance plans may cover at least a portion of the total physical therapy costs. To see if your plan includes coverage for physical or occupational therapy, contact the insurance company directly and ask about included benefits. Another important element for keeping PT costs down is ensuring that you are seeing a physical therapist who is in-network. Seeing an out-of-network physical therapist can lead to greater expenses.

Medicare and PT

Traditional Medicare Part B plans will cover approximately 80% of physical therapy costs, once a deductible is met. You are then typically responsible for the remaining 20% of costs, unless you have a covering secondary insurance plan.

Without Insurance

If you do not have insurance, it is important to let the physical therapy office know so that they can provide you with their office-standard rates. You can speak with the physical therapist to see what your treatment plan may look like and to help estimate the final costs. It is also possible to continue treatment on your own at home, going to the PT office every few weeks for re-enforcement and help as needed.

Summary

Physical therapy can help decrease pain, increase mobility and flexibility, and decrease inflammation of the affected joints. Most insurance companies will cover at least a portion of the associated costs, but even without insurance, physical therapy options do exist.

A Word From Verywell

Physical therapy is just one treatment option used to help treat a number of different joint conditions. If you are experiencing joint pain, joint swelling, or limited range of motion, make sure you speak with your healthcare provider. A referral for a course of physical therapy may be beneficial and help alleviate common joint symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What’s the best type of physical therapy for arthritis?

    Physical therapy treatment plans are best determined after an initial consultation with a licensed physical therapist. People with osteoarthritis may benefit from traditional PT, while others may benefit more from variations like aqua therapy.

  • What should you do if you don’t like your physical therapist?

    If you are having difficulty working with your physical therapist, it is important to address your concerns with them directly. Two-way communication between a patient and physical therapist is crucial. If you’re still having trouble with your PT, find another. You are in control of the care you receive and have the right to find a therapist who works best with you.

  • Can you do arthritis physical therapy at home?

    Physical therapy can be done at home. Several PT companies offer at-home services in which a physical therapist will bring light weights and resistance bands to your home and help guide you through an active session. Another option is to continue to do the exercises and stretches taught during formal PT sessions at home.

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.

By Katherine Alexis Athanasiou, PA-C

Katherine Alexis Athanasiou is a New York-based certified Physician Assistant with clinical experience in Rheumatology and Family Medicine. She is a lifelong writer with works published in several local newspapers, The Journal of the American Academy of PAs, Health Digest, and more.