Occupational and physical therapists help in different ways

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March 11, 1997|By Dr. Simeon Margolis | Dr. Simeon Margolis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My wife has rheumatoid arthritis, and her doctor has urged her to see a physical therapist. One of our friends with the same type of arthritis has been helped by an occupational therapist. I do not understand the difference between these two kinds of therapists and wonder which would be most helpful for my wife.

Both physical and occupational therapists are highly trained health professionals who can improve the daily life of people with arthritis in different ways. Physical therapists help people to reduce joint pain, maintain strength and improve their mobility. To relieve pain, they use non-medication techniques such as hot and cold packs, paraffin baths, whirlpool, ultrasound and electrical stimulation.

Physical therapists make available special exercise equipment to help increase strength and endurance; they also design exercise programs for home use. They may move joints manually through the safe range of motion during acute flare-ups of arthritis. In addition, physical therapists teach patients how to adopt positions and postures that minimize stress on joints, how to use canes and crutches properly, and how to get in and out of chairs correctly. Physical therapists take part in patient care before and after joint operations.

Occupational therapists provide advice on how to improve daily living routines and activities. For example, they might make recommendations on how to prioritize projects and suggest changes in the arrangements in your home or at work to allow you to be more efficient and save energy.

Occupational therapists (and some physical therapists) design customized splints to protect inflamed joints or to reduce the strain on chronically fatigued joints. They can provide information on ways to ease the stress of regular activities such as cooking, dressing, bathing and cleaning the house.

Occupational therapists also can modify items to make it possible to use them without placing a strain on arthritic joints. Examples might include extended handles on combs, toothbrushes or tools.

Patients may be referred to physical or occupational therapists for treatment programs by physiatrists, physicians who specialize in exercise and rehabilitation.

Dr. Margolis is professor of medicine and biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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