How Therapeutic Exercise Helps Relieve Arthritic Pain

Staff Writer

Arthritis affects nearly 21 million adults in the United States, and is the most common reason for disability.  There are over 100 different types of arthritis, the most common of which is osteoarthritis.  Other forms of arthritis include lupus, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout.  Pain, aching joints, stiffness, and swelling around the joints are common symptoms of arthritis.

Inflammation of one or more joints causes arthritis.  Cartilage breakdown in the joint causes pain with movement and results in swelling and stiffness of the joint.  If you are suffering from arthritis, you may be limited in physical activity due to fear or fear your pain would worsen.  Nearly half of adults who suffer from arthritis do not actively engage in physical activity.  Inactivity promotes an unhealthy set of blood abnormalities that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Inactivity leads to low plasma volume, high plasma fibrinogen, elevated blood viscosity, increased platelet aggregation, and decreased fibrinolysis.  Exercising regularly reverses all these adverse blood changes and promotes heart health.

Treatment for arthritic pain includes drugs, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.  In contrary to the opinion that staying active will worsen arthritic symptoms, exercise is the preferred treatment for arthritis because it reduces stiffness, pain, and fatigue.  It improves muscle and bone strength and gives you more energy.  Recreational activities like swimming and walking done in a safe way with minimal risk to joints help relieve arthritic pain.

A therapeutic exercise regimen to treat arthritis may include

  • Aerobic exercise to build endurance
  • Range of motion and stretching exercise to increase flexibility
  • Strength training to improve muscle tone

Tai Chi

Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, has been widely used around the world to improve physical ability and balance.  Tai Chi is used to reduce arthritic symptoms with excellent results.  In the long term, exercise keeps the bones and joints healthy with improved flexibility.  Not all exercise programs are suitable for every arthritic patient.  The exercise program must improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and improve cardiovascular strength.  Tai Chi teaches the patient to be mindful of the moment providing a sense of empowerment.  The benefit of a Tai Chi regimen is that it does not require any equipment and can be done anywhere at any time.

Aquatic Exercise

Some people experience severe pain with walking and exercising for arthritic pain relief.  For these people, aquatic exercise is beneficial.  In temperature-controlled pools, the blood flow to muscles increases and helps the muscles relax.  This allows for easier movement of the limbs as the buoyancy reduces the body weight placed on the back, hips, and lower limbs.  You can enroll in an aquatic exercise program even if you do not know how to swim because an aquatic exercise program includes gentle range of motion exercises, gentle walk laps, etc.  These programs also offer a support group that promotes increased emotional health.


Walking is an easy, effective, and inexpensive way to reduce pain from arthritic symptoms.  The Arthritis Foundation’s Walk With Ease Program is tailored to reduce pain and improve general health.  The program helps you to motivate yourself to be in good shape, walk safely, improve your flexibility, endurance, and feel great.

If you or someone you know is suffering from arthritis and limited in their movement, encourage exercising to increase strength and flexibility.  Consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen.

Sources for this article include:

  • Wang TJ et al.  Comparing the efficacy of aquatic exercises and land-based exercises for patients with knee osteoarthritis.  J Clin Nurs. 2011 Sep;20 (17-18):2609-22.
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