Arthritis Self-Help: What Are My Choices?

by Wendy McBrair, MS, BSN, CHES

Arthritis Self-Help: What Are My Choices?

Attending a support group meeting can help a person put into words and grow comfortable with new challenges, without worrying about sounding like a complainer or whiner. It can help people with arthritis feel they are not alone. The families that attend learn that their family member is truly doing his or her best in this difficult time of adjustment and change. Family members can learn how best to help their loved one. They can also learn what resources are available in their area.

If you think attending a support group is for you, try calling your local hospital, health department, or Arthritis Foundation chapter for the group closest to you. If there are no groups available, think about starting one. It is a wonderful volunteer opportunity and can be a very gratifying experience.

Self-management courses

The first self-management, or self-help, course for people with arthritis was developed 30 years ago at Stanford University by Dr. Kate Lorig. Called the Arthritis Self-Management Program (ASMP), or the Arthritis Self-Help Course, it is a six-week group course designed to teach people with arthritis (and their families) how to manage the condition as effectively as possible. The course teaches joint-friendly exercise, appropriate medicine use, healthy eating habits, good communication skills, and other strategies to help people deal with the pain, fatigue, and frustration that can accompany arthritis. Trained volunteers who often have arthritis themselves lead the courses.

Clinical studies of the ASMP show that it is effective. People who take part in the course have lower levels of pain and depression and improved quality of life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Arthritis Foundation, and the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) all endorse the ASMP. Many state health departments are now offering the course to people with arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation also offers it, under the name Arthritis Foundation Self-Help Program. If you are interested in taking an arthritis self-management course, contact your local Arthritis Foundation chapter, hospital, or health department.

There are some other self-help courses along the same lines. The Chronic Disease Self-Management Program focuses more generally on self-help skills for increased wellness. A version is now available for free online. The Fibromyalgia Self-Management Course and the Lupus Self-Management Course are available in some areas.

Self-management courses are usually free, but in some cases there may be a small charge. If you want to take part in one of these courses, you should enjoy following a standardized curriculum, sharing with others, and doing some homework.

Exercise programs

Years ago, people with arthritis were told not to exercise. In the 1980’s, that advice began to change. Physical therapists put together programs of exercises for people with arthritis that could be offered as classes. To make sure that people teaching the classes knew what to do and what to avoid, the Arthritis Foundation took on responsibility for training class leaders. The Foundation, working with the YMCA, also helped set up exercise classes across the country. Soon, studies were showing that warm-water programs and land programs could actually improve joint health. The classes have had a number of names over the years. At this time, they are called The Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program (AFAP), The Arthritis Foundation Walk With Ease Program, and The Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program. At this time, they are called the Arthritis Foundation Water Exercise Class and the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program (Land). The programs may still be known by the older names in some parts of the country.

If you decide to join an exercise class, make sure that a trained and certified instructor leads the class. Your instructor should understand the type of arthritis you have, know how to help you build your exercise program gradually, and know which exercises you shouldn’t do. The instructor should also be recertified periodically.

Most classes for water exercise are held twice a week and last about 45 minutes to an hour. For warm-water classes, make sure the water temperature is no less than 83°F (warm water loosens up the joints) and that the class is held in an accessible pool with a lifeguard in attendance. Land exercise classes are also about 45 minutes to an hour and may be held once or twice a week. You’ll most likely have to pay a small fee for exercise classes.

Many people enjoy the “group” atmosphere of an exercise class. But for others, exercising alone may be more appealing. If exercising alone is for you, you can buy exercise videos or DVDs through the Arthritis Foundation Web site. If you branch out and try any other videos, make sure a reputable organization has approved them. Some videos may recommend exercises that are not suitable for people with arthritis.

Last Reviewed on May 2, 2012

Wendy McBrair spent 30 years as a health-care professional in the fields of rheumatology and orthopedics, where she specialized in patient and community service, patient education, and advocacy.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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