A Physiotherapist’s Guide to Osteoarthritis
“Arthritis” is a term used to describe inflammation of the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis and usually is caused by the deterioration of a joint. Typically, the weight-bearing joints are affected, with the knee and the hip being the most common.
An estimated 27 million Americans have some form of OA. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 2 people in the United States may develop knee OA by age 85, and 1 in 4 may develop hip OA in their lifetime. Until age 50, men and women are equally affected by OA; after age 50, women are affected more than men. Over their lifetimes, 21% of overweight and 31% of obese adults are diagnosed with arthritis.
OA affects daily activity and is the most common cause of disability in the US adult population. Although OA does not always require surgery, such as a joint replacement, it has been estimated that the use of total joint replacement in the United States will increase 174% for hips and 673% for knees by 2030.
Physical therapists can help patients understand OA and its complications, and provide treatments to lessen pain and improve movement. Additionally, physical therapists can provide information about healthy lifestyle choices and obesity education. This is important because some research shows that weight loss can reduce the chance of getting OA. One study showed that an 11-pound weight loss reduced the risk of OA in women.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Your bones are connected at joints such as the hip and knee. A rubbery substance called cartilage coats the bones at these joints and helps reduce friction when you move. A protective oily substance called synovial fluid is also contained within the joint, helping to ease movement. When these protective coverings break down, the bones begin to rub together during movement. This can cause pain, and the process itself can lead to more damage in the remaining cartilage and the bones themselves.
The cause of OA is unknown. Current research points to aging as the main cause. Factors that may increase your risk for OA include:
•Age. Growing older increases your risk for developing OA because of the amount of time you’ve used your joints.
•Genetics. Research indicates that some people’s bodies have difficulty forming cartilage. Individuals can pass this problem on to their children.
•Past Injury. Individuals with prior injury to a specific joint, especially a weight-bearing joint (such as the hip or knee), are at increased risk for developing OA.
•Occupation. Jobs that require repetitive squatting, bending, and twisting are risk factors for OA. People who perform jobs that require prolonged kneeling (miners, flooring specialists) are at high risk for developing OA.
•Sports. Athletes who repeatedly use a specific joint in extreme ways (pitchers, football linemen, ballet dancers) may increase their risk for developing OA later in life.
•Obesity. Being overweight causes increased stress to the weight-bearing joints (such as knees), increasing the risk for development of OA.
How Does it Feel?
Typically, OA causes pain and stiffness in the joint. Common symptoms include:
•Stiffness in the joint, especially in the morning, which eases in less than 30 minutes
•Stiffness in the joint after sitting or lying down for long periods
•Pain during activity that is relieved by rest
•Cracking, creaking, crunching, or other types of joint noise
•Pain when you press on the joint
•Increased bone growth around the joint that you may be able to feel
Caution: Swelling and warmth around the joint is not usually seen with OA and may indicate a different condition or signs of an inflammation. Please consult with your doctor if you have swelling, redness, and warmth in the joint.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Osteoarthritis is typically diagnosed by your doctor using an x-ray, but there are signs that may lead your physical therapist to suspect you have OA. Joint stiffness, difficulty moving, joint creaking or cracking, and pain that is relieved with rest are typical symptoms.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Your physical therapist can effectively treat OA. Depending on how severe the OA is, physical therapy may help you avoid surgery. Although the symptoms and progression of OA are different for each person, starting an individualized exercise program and addressing risk factors can help relieve your symptoms and slow the condition’s advance. Here are a few ways your physical therapist can help:
•Your therapist will do a thorough examination to determine your symptoms and what activities are difficult for you. He or she will design an exercise program to address those activities and improve your movement.
•Your therapist may use manual (hands-on) therapy to improve movement of the affected joint.
•Your physical therapist may offer suggestions for adjusting your work area to lessen the strain on your joints.
•Your physical therapist can teach you an aerobic exercise program to improve your movement and overall health, and offer instructions for continuing the program at home.
•If you are overweight, your physical therapist can teach you an exercise program for safe weight loss, and recommend simple lifestyle changes that will help keep the weight off.
In cases of severe OA that are not helped by physical therapy alone, surgery, such as a knee or hip replacement, may be necessary. Your physical therapist will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon to discuss the possibility of surgery.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
The best way to prevent or slow the onset of OA is to choose a healthy lifestyle, avoid obesity, and participate in regular exercise.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of hip osteoarthritis and hip replacement. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitation: United States, 2007-2009. Published October 8, 2010. Accessed March 11, 2013. Free Article.
Murphy LB, Helmick CG, Schwartz TA, et al. One in four people may develop symptomatic hip osteoarthritis in his or her lifetime. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2010;18:1372–1379. Free Article.
Cibulka MT, White DM, Woehrle J, et al. Hip pain and mobility deficits—hip osteoarthritis: clinical practice guidelines linked to the international classification of functioning, disability, and health from the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39:A1–A25. Free Article.
Murphy L, Schwartz TA, Helmick CG, et al. Lifetime risk of symptomatic knee osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2008;59:1207–1213. Free Article.
Kurtz S, Ong K, Lau E, et al. Projections of primary and revision hip and knee arthroplasty in the United States from 2005 to 2030. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2007;89:780–785. Article Summary in PubMed.
Deyle GD, Allison SC, Matekel RL, et al. Physical therapy treatment effectiveness for osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized comparison of supervised clinical exercise and manual therapy procedures versus a home exercise program. Phys Ther. 2005;85:1301–1317. Free Article.
Authored by Christopher Bise, PT, MS, DPT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.
There is a common belief that there is not much you can do for osteoarthritis because the joint damage has already occurred and can’t be reversed. However it is often the inflammation of the tissue surrounding the joint and instability from the weakened tissues that lead to pain from an arthritic joint.
Our physiotherapists may be able to help you decrease the inflammation and pain around the joint and get you moving again. Here is some information about osteoarthritis and how we can help.
What is osteoarthritis?
Arthritis is a name for a group of conditions that cause damage to the joints in our body, usually causing pain and stiffness
Osteoarthritis is one of these conditions and it affects the whole joint, including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles
It is most prevalent in the joints of the hips, knees, neck, lower back, fingers and big toe, but can occur in any joint
It is degeneration of the joint structures, namely the cartilage (protective cushioning on the bony surfaces) and its underlying bone surfaces
Bony growths or spurs commonly known as osteophytes are common in osteoarthritis
Ligaments and muscles around the joint also deteriorate in osteoarthritis
It normally affects a joint on one side of the body i.e. it doesn’t normally occur bilaterally like other arthritic conditions
There are other arthritic conditions you may have heard of such as rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.
Signs and symptoms
Swelling of the joints
Symptoms usually develop and worsen gradually over months or years
Affecting ability to carry out normal daily activities
Clicking/grinding in the joint
Loss of flexibility in a joint
What causes osteoarthritis?
Previous joint trauma/injury
Being overweight greatly increases your risk
High joint stress/repetitive use/heavy loads
There is an increase risk as you age and there is more ‘wear and tear’ on the joints
Arthritis can be diagnosed by taking a thorough history and physical examination
X-ray can help confirm a diagnosis – you may need to see your doctor to get a referral
Our physiotherapists can help you with:
Strength and exercise programme
Joint mobilisation/soft tissue techniques
Aids or braces
Weight loss programme
Medication and joint supplements – your doctor can guide you on the best options
Surgical options such as joint replacement
Pre-operative rehabilitation has been shown to improve outcomes post-operatively, so if you are requiring surgery come and find out how you can help speed up your recovery with pre-hab
Some hints for the colder months
Cold weather can exacerbate joint pain and joint stiffness. Remembering a few common sense tips can help people with osteoarthritis survive cold weather:
Dress warmly and layer up
Exercise indoors to stay motivated and warmer
Use a heated pool for exercise – talk to your physiotherapist for local options and classes
Ensure your vitamin D levels are adequate
You don’t have to wait for the warmer months to reduce pain associated with osteoarthritis! Book an appointment with a physiotherapist online 24/7,
At first it was just a niggle in your knee when you climbed stairs or were squatting. Then the pain and stiffness became more than a niggle and you began to feel it when walking, sitting and resting.
You may be hearing popping or cracking sounds in your knee, and notice that your knee “gives out” every now and again.
The knee is an amazing but complicated joint and knee pain is one of the most common reasons that people visit a physiotherapist.
Pain behind the kneecap is commonly called runner’s knee because it is often seen in athletes and people with an active lifestyle, although it can also be seen in everyone from the young adolescents during growth spurts to elderly people.
The medical term is patellofemoral pain syndrome. It is pain behind the kneecap where your patella (kneecap) slides along the groove in your femur (thighbone) beneath.
Pain and stiffness occurs when the kneecap does not slide smoothly and misaligns causing it to rub against your femur. Repeated mis-tracking causes pain, stiffness, and ultimately can cause damage to your kneecap joint surface.
Knee pain is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
People most at risk are those whose sport or activity includes running, jumping or the need to land in a squatting position. Sports most commonly associated with knee pain include running, netball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, skiing and cycling. Many tradies such as tilers and carpet layers also have problems.
Causes of Runner’s Knee
Overuse – increased activity or increased duration and intensity of the activity
Changes in footwear or playing surfaces
Tight outer thigh muscles and weaker inner thigh muscles causing the kneecap to be pulled to one side
A twisting injury
Flat feet and lack of arch support
Weak hip control muscles
First aid for Runner’s Knee
Generally, knee pain is gradual onset, which means it gradually increases in severity over time.
As with most injuries, the best initial first aid is rest, ice packs (15 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours), and taking anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen.
You do not need a referral from a doctor to see a physiotherapist. If the pain is moderate, then you can seek treatment with your Physiotherapist immediately.
Physiotherapy is a proven treatment for runner’s knee. Your physiotherapist may initially tape or strap your kneecap to help pull it back into alignment and reduce pain.
Massage and joint mobilisation techniques are also commonly used to reduce swelling and restore movement.
You will be prescribed exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles that may be contributing to the problem. These exercises will change as you heal and will gradually increase in intensity to match your recovery.
If you wish to continue exercising to maintain your fitness during your treatment, then explore swimming, deep-water running and low-impact gym equipment such as elliptical trainers.
Depending on your knee pain cause, you may also be advised to explore arch supports, orthotics or different footwear. You may also require postural or technique correction in your chosen sport to stop problems from recurring, as well as a strength and conditioning plan to get you back to full competitive fitness.
In our experience, over 90% of runner’s knee physiotherapy clients will be pain free within six weeks of starting treatment. However, for severely damaged joints or arthritic joints, surgery may be required.
Things to Remember
Runner’s knee or patellofemoral pain syndrome is a common cause of knee pain.
It is a gradual onset injury and is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
Physiotherapy is a proven method to speed healing, and prevent recurrence of knee pain.
Future management may also involve assessment of your gait and posture during exercise, and prescription of arch support or custom made orthotics.
Foot Pain OUCH!
You leap out of bed in the morning and you get stabbing pains in your heels or the arches of your feet. You hobble a few steps, and then hobble a few more until the pain reduces. Most of the day your feet feel OK …except when you tackle stairs or when you have been sitting for a while when the pain makes a reappearance.
Pain in your heel or the bottom of your foot is most commonly caused by Plantar Fasciitis. Your Plantar Fascia is the ligament that goes from the underneath of your heel to your toes. If you strain it, micro tears can form, which leads to swelling and sharp pain.
While most people experience the pain in their heel, some also get pain through to the arch of their foot. In about 70% of cases, the pain is in both feet, making walking a very painful experience.
You most commonly notice the pain first thing in the morning when you get out of bed and it reduces as your feet warm up with movement. It can reappear during the day after periods of rest or sitting, if you have been standing for a while, or when climbing stairs or ladders.
Plantar Fasciitis is more common in middle-aged people, although it can also affect younger people who use their feet a lot like joggers, dancers, or soldiers. That’s why it is also often called Joggers Heel.
Causes of Plantar Fasciitis
While the actual causes of plantar fasciitis are not known, there are risk factors that will increase the likelihood of you getting plantar fasciitis.
Overuse – excessive running, walking or dancing, or changing your training pattern so you dramatically increase hill running (for example).
Standing on hard surfaces
Flat feet or high foot arches (this is one time when average is better!)
Tight Achilles tendons or calf muscles
Your feet roll in when you walk or run
Ill-fitting shoes, worn out or unsupportive footwear such as thongs/slides
Walking barefoot on hard surfaces
First aid for Plantar Fasciitis
Generally, plantar fasciitis is gradual onset, which means it gradually increases in severity over time. If you ignore it and try to run through the pain, then the symptoms can get worse, ultimately leading to you changing your gait, limiting your activity or triggering the growth of heel spurs.
For initial symptoms, you need to rest, apply ice packs (15 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours), and take anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen.
You don’t need a referral from a doctor to see a physiotherapist. If the pain is moderate then you can seek treatment with your Physiotherapist immediately as the sooner you begin treatment, the sooner you will experience relief.
Occasionally your plantar fascia can snap and you could hear a clicking or snapping sound, accompanied by swelling, intense pain and significant swelling. You need to see a doctor urgently if this occurs.
Physiotherapy & Treatment Options
Your physiotherapist will assess the extent of your injury, and will explore the causes of your injury.
Depending on your symptoms, you may have the soles of your feet taped or strapped to support your feet and reduce pain. You may also need to wear a plantar fasciitis brace or heel cups in the initial stages of healing.
Your physiotherapist will take you through a number of gentle stretching exercises for your feet, as well as exercises to address any tight Achilles tendons or calf muscles.
We will combine these with pain reduction techniques that you can do at home such as rolling your foot on a frozen water bottle or frozen golf ball to help ice your injury site.
Massage, joint mobilisation techniques, dry needling and ultrasound therapy will also be used to reduce swelling and restore movement.
For your footwear, we recommend you replace your joggers every 650km of use, and only wear shoes that support your feet while healing. Definitely no thongs or slides!
It also helps to put your shoes on first thing in the morning, before you take your first steps. Avoid barefoot walking on tiles or hard surfaces while you heal.
If the cause of your injury is your feet shape or foot pronation, you may need special orthotics. If this is indicated, we would conduct a walk/run assessment on you and have your technique analysed.
To maintain your fitness during your treatment, we recommend swimming and cycling. Don’t return to running until you have been pain free for at least one week, and then only run on soft surfaces until you rebuild your strength and stamina. If pain is felt at any time, then go back to swimming and cycling rather than running.
Unfortunately, Plantar Fasciitis is a long-term injury, and may take a number of months to fully heal even with the most aggressive treatments.
Things to Remember
Plantar Fasciitis is the most common cause of heel and arch pain, and is caused by micro tears to the plantar fascia.
It is a gradual onset injury and causes sharp pain when taking the first few steps in the morning or after rest.
Physiotherapy can treat plantar fasciitis, while reducing pain and increasing movement during healing.
Your physiotherapist may advise you of techniques for the improvement of your walk/running style, or provide you with solutions for arch support, to help prevent further reoccurrence.
Healing may take many months for full recovery.