What is occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy aims to help you to manage your work, home and leisure activities if you have a condition that makes those activities difficult.
Some occupational therapists (OTs) have specialist knowledge in dealing with problems caused by arthritis and related conditions, and they’ll work with you to find solutions, allowing you to carry on independently without straining your joints or wearing yourself out.
An occupational therapist can advise on alternative methods, tools and equipment to help with your daily activities and, if needed, can help you to get adaptations to your home, car or workplace.
How can occupational therapy help?
Whichever type of arthritis you have, it’s a good idea to start looking after your joints as soon as possible. An occupational therapist, or OT, can help you learn to protect your joints. This doesn’t mean not using your joints, it just means using them in different ways. This reduces aches and pains and means you can do things more easily.
An occupational therapist will help you to become more aware of how you use the joints that ache and will work with you to find solutions to the things you find difficult. The aim is to help you to keep managing your daily activities for yourself.
Occupational therapy can help whether you’re having difficulty with your work, home, or leisure activities by offering:
- advice on using your joints without straining them
- splints to support your joints while working or resting
- help with choosing tools and equipment to help with your activities
- techniques to help with planning your activities, pacing yourself and relaxation
- exercises – for example, to improve hand and wrist strength and mobility
- advice on driving, mobility problems and/or home adaptations if needed
- support to help with work activities
- fatigue management advice.
Making everyday and work activities easier
An occupational therapist can help you to break down your activities, working out where you are having difficulties and suggesting changes that might help. They will help you to think about:
- the way you do things and how it affects your joints
- how you can position yourself more comfortably
- how often you take a break or do something different for a while
- hand exercises to improve your grip
- whether there’s a gadget that would help.
If you’re working or a student, the therapist can discuss your job or studies with you. They can help identify any difficulties you are having and show you changes that could make things easier.
Many people with arthritis worry about how it might affect their work in the future. The sooner you get support, the more likely you are to keep working.
Even if you haven’t told your employer you have arthritis, your therapist can give you work advice. And if you have told your employer, your therapist may also be able to visit you at work and discuss any changes that could help with you and your manager.
Changing the way you do things
Your occupational therapist can help you protect your joints by showing you how to:
- use several joints to spread the load
- let larger, stronger joints to take more of the strain
- make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on your joints.
Find out more about joint care techniques.
Planning and pacing yourself
Your occupational therapist can also help you to manage the fatigue that often comes with arthritis – for example, by:
- planning ahead and prioritising your activities
- pacing yourself and recognising that overdoing things one day will probably mean you can’t do as much the next day
- alternating the activities you find most tiring with those you find easier
- learning relaxation techniques.
Splints to rest or support your joints
If you have painful joints, wearing splints can help to:
- keep your joints in a stable position while you're resting
- support your joints while you're working.
Splints are often available from pharmacies, sports shops and online retailers. However, before you buy one, it’s a good idea to get advice from a healthcare professional (such as an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or hand therapist).
Your therapist may be able to provide a splint or arrange for an orthotist to make one designed for your specific needs. They can also advise on how best to use and care for your splints and on gentle exercises to do when you take your splint off.
Find out more about splints, including the different types and how best to use them.
How can I access occupational therapy?
Occupational therapists may work in the NHS, community or private clinics.
Any member of the healthcare team, including your doctor or rheumatology nurse, can refer you. You may also receive occupational therapy if you're referred to a pain management clinic.
Occupational therapists may also work within social service departments or in some charities. If you’re having trouble managing at home, you can ask social services to put you in touch with an occupational therapist who may be able to visit you.
Occupational therapists should be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and it's recommended that you see a therapist who's a member of the professional body, the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT).