The Role Physical Therapy Can Play In Your Lupus Treatment

About 1.5 million people in this country have lupus – an autoimmune condition in which the body creates antibodies that attack its own cells. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a form of the disease where inflammation can affect your skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, nervous system, and joints. The organs involved vary by person, as the disease can affect multiple organ systems and tissues of the body. Management of the disease depends on your symptoms and what organs are involved; however, exercise and physical therapy can play key roles in your treatment program.

Goals of Physical Therapy

In treating your lupus, your rheumatologist may refer you to physical therapy to help get you moving more easily and reduce some of your pain. A physical therapist will work with you in formulating a treatment plan to:

  • Relieve pain and inflammation. Joint and muscle pain often is one of the first symptoms of lupus. Inflammation causes pain; therefore, your physical therapist may include isometric exercises in your exercise program, especially if you have inflammation in the muscles surrounding the hip and knee joints. Isometric exercises work your muscles without moving your joints while you remain holding a stationary position for several seconds.

  • Decrease muscle weakness. While inflammation can cause muscle weakness, certain medications that doctors prescribe to treat lupus can cause side effects, including muscle weakness. Chronic lupus arthritis can cause muscle atrophy – a decrease in muscle mass – often due to a lack of physical activity.

    If mobility is an issue, on addition to an exercise program, a physical therapist may recommend an assistive device, such as a cane or walker.

  • Decrease fatigue and increase your energy level. Extreme fatigue is a common symptom of lupus. Some of the drugs doctors use to treat lupus, reduced physical activity, and co-existing conditions, such as fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, and diabetes, also can cause fatigue.

    The debilitating fatigue that many lupus patients feel can decrease over time with regular exercise. A physical therapist may plan an exercise program that gradually increases the levels of your physical activity or instructs you on how to conserve energy by pacing your physical activity throughout the day.

  • Increase joint flexibility and range of motion. Pain, muscle stiffness, joint swelling, and inflammation of the soft tissues surrounding the joints can reduce the range of motion in the affected joints. Stretching exercises help increase flexibility and improve range of motion.

    A physical therapist, like those at Eastern Shore Physical Therapy, may guide you in active assistive range of motion exercises when pain makes it difficult to flex or extend a joint. Depending on the severity of your condition, a physical therapist may perform passive exercise, instructing you to relax while he or she moves a joint through its full range of motion.

  • Improve mobility and motion. Although not everyone with lupus experiences physical limitations, many individuals suffer joint pain and swelling severe enough to interfere with their daily activities and limit their mobility.

    Exercises that increase muscle strength and endurance help you move easier so that you can move more. Increased mobility, even if you move slowly, gets blood flowing to painful muscles, helping to ease the pain, which allows you to move your limbs better.

  • Protect the joints from damage. Although it's important to remain as active as possible when you have lupus, you should avoid weight-bearing exercises if you suffer chronic joint pain. Your physical therapist may recommend low-impact exercises, such as walking, water aerobics, and yoga, which are easy on the joints.

    Walking at a pace that is comfortable for you gets blood circulating throughout your body, decreasing inflammation around joint areas.

In tailoring an exercise program to combat your lupus symptoms, a physical therapist will consider your limitations and then help you determine how often, for how long, and at what intensity you should exercise.