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Osteoarthritis: How Can Physiotherapy Help?

Many patients come into our clinic with pain in their spine, or knees, or shoulders, stating that they have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis (OA)?

Osteoarthritis is a disease that breaks down the soft tissues and bones of joints in your body.   Simply put, it is wear and tear.  It is the most common form of arthritis–research shows that 90% of people will experience some degree of OA in their lifetime.  It is autoimmune, meaning that body’s cells attack itself, causing a cycle of inflammation and pain.  It is also degenerative, so that once you get OA, it cannot be cured, but it’s progression can be slowed down significantly.


OA usually occurs in the weight-bearing joints, such as the knees, hips and spine but can also occur in other joints, such as the shoulders and fingers.


The joints are where 2 bones meet and the ends of the bones are covered in soft bony tissue (cartilage) that allows them to glide more freely.  It also provides shock absorption during movement and activity.  Wear and tear causes inflammation in the joints, resulting in bones that may rub together in certain vulnerable spots.  Occasionally, bone spurs can form in these spots, causing increased friction during activity.


All this results in the following classic symptoms that most patients feel.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis:

  • pain
  • joint stiffness.
  • clicking, grating or crackling sensations
  • occasional swelling and deformity


In the early stages, the joints are stiff in the morning, and tend to loosen as they “warm up”.  As OA progresses, the pain and stiffness may increase.


What Causes OA?

Although there are many factors that can contribute to this condition, the main ones include:

  1. overuse and/or injury to the joint which can speed cartilage breakdown
  2. overweight/obesity (puts extra stress on the weight-bearing joints in particular)
  3. family history (researchers are not sure exactly how genetics play a role although shape of joints may be a factor in wear and tear)
  4. age (chances are, the older you are the more likely you will experience some degree of OA)
  5. sometimes there is no real cause for the osteoarthritic changes, particularly in the fingers and toes

So, How can Physiotherapy Help?

Although OA is irreversible, you can certainly slow its progression as well as minimize the impact of the disease on your daily function.  Your physiotherapist can provide excellent conservative treatment to help you manage the OA symptoms.


A safe and appropriate treatment program would help:

  • manage pain, stiffness and swelling during a flare up
  • minimize the intensity, severity and frequency of the symptoms


A big part of treatment is an individualized home exercise program.  This includes:

  • exercises to increase and maintain joint range of motion of both the affected and neighbouring joints and,
  • exercises to strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joint(s), as well as other joints that would help offset the load on the painful joints.  Strong muscles help  to stabilize joints during activity and keep them aligned so as to minimize friction between the joint surfaces and
  • aerobic exercises that would improve/maintain whole body conditioning but minimize impact on the affected joints.  This may include water walking/running, swimming, cycling and/or walking.
  • education on energy conservation, such as strategies on how to pace your day’s activities


As each individual’s body, fitness level and medical history is different, it is best to consult a physiotherapist if you would like to see help in managing osteoarthritis so that your quality of life is minimally affected.

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