For the 46 million Americans living with arthritis, day-to-day activities can become nearly impossible within the blink of an eye. When patients face these difficult challenges, they often turn to rheumatology occupational therapists as a part of their treatment team.

Arthritis isn’t just an “older person’s disease.” Many people, including an estimated 300,000 children, suffer from its debilitating effects, and when the pain of arthritis starts to interfere with work, school, caring for children, and enjoying life, patients should consider medical intervention, according to the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals, Atlanta.

A major part of the treatment of arthritis is putting together a strong team of rheumatology experts to treat the disease, the group says. The team is typically headed up by a rheumatologist, who is an internist or pediatrician qualified by additional training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles, and bones. The treatment team is also supported by rheumatology health professionals, including the OTs who assist patients in developing and/or regaining the skills important for independent functioning, health, and well-being.

Scott Zashin, MD, a practicing rheumatologist in Dallas, refers patients to OTs for several reasons. “Patients who are concerned about loss of function, are looking for instruction on exercises or ways to decrease stress on their joints, or who simply want common sense tips on joint protection can all benefit from working with a rheumatology OT,” he says.

Once working with a patient, rheumatology OTs develop an individualized treatment plan to achieve prioritized goals. They educate clients and their families to adapt environments, modify tasks, and use equipment to promote independent function and to help gain or maintain full participation in self-care, daily home tasks, work or school, and leisure or play.

“For people with inflammatory types of arthritis, fatigue is often identified as having a huge impact on participating in employment, parenting, and family life,” says Catherine Backman, PhD, OT(C), an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of British Columbia. “Occupational therapists collaborate with their clients to develop practical strategies and to set priorities, accommodate limitations, and enjoy the activities they value most.”

April is National Occupational Therapy Month.

The organization urges people who are being treated for arthritis or another rheumatic disease to speak with their rheumatologist about the positive role occupational therapy can play in an overall treatment plan.

The Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals, a division of the American College of Rheumatology, is a professional membership society composed of non-physician health care professionals specializing in rheumatology, such as advanced practice nurses, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, epidemiologists, physician assistants, educators, clinicians, and researchers.

[Source: Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals]