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The Role of the Occupational Therapist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease

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OTWhat Does the Occupational Therapist Do?

The role of the Occupational Therapist (OT) is to help patients improve or maintain skills for day-to-day activities and well-being. OTs work in partnership with their patients to identify important and valued activities that are difficult to do because of their arthritis. The activities may be related to self care, paid or unpaid work, or leisure and fun. Together they will find ways to use the patient’s strengths and resources to lead productive and satisfying lives.

The OT will work with patients to determine:

  • How their arthritis is affecting their day-to-day activities due to pain, joint stiffness, fatigue or stress
  • How mental health (e.g. memory, thinking, reasoning), social and emotional factors (e.g. anxiety, family support) are affecting their home, school, work and community lives
  • What they can and cannot do in basic activities of daily living (e.g. dressing, bathing, and mobility) and community living skills (e.g. shopping, cooking, and transportation)
  • How home, school, work place and community physical environments are helping or posing barriers to doing their valued activities
  • The need for adapted equipment, splints, and ergonomic modifications

Treatment begins by developing a plan to address the patient’s most important goals and priorities.  Occupational therapists work with patients and families to adapt their environment, modify tasks, and use equipment to improve participation in all areas of daily living. Fatigue can be managed by learning to conserve energy, reduce stress, learn relaxation techniques and improve sleep habits. To help with day-to-day activities, the OT will help patients learn how to protect their affected joints, manage pain, as well as use adapted equipment. Splints, insoles and arthritis-friendly household equipment (e.g. enlarged grips, raised toilet seats) may be suggested to improve or maintain function. Therapeutic exercises to maintain or improve joint range of motion or grip strength may also be prescribed. The OT can help to identify personal and community resources to improve a patient’s participation in life, and ongoing management of their arthritis. Some OTs may conduct clinical research and have leadership roles that involve quality improvement and program planning and evaluation.

Where Does an Occupational Therapist Work?

The OT can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, hospices, rehabilitation centers, home health agencies, schools, industrial clinics, outpatient clinics, and private practice and a growing number of non-traditional settings. A health care provider’s referral may be needed to see an OT.

What Kind of Training Does an Occupational Therapist Have?

A practicing OT will have completed training at an accredited university program, at the master’s degree level (as of 2007). All programs include a period of supervised clinical experience. After graduation, a national certification examination must be completed in order to become a registered Occupational Therapist (OTR). They may also pursue advanced specialties such as hand therapy and environmental modifications.

To Find a Rheumatologist or Rheumatology Health Professional

For a listing of rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals in your area, click here.

For More Information: contact the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals at (404) 633-3777 or

Updated June 2014, ARHP Practice Committee

This patient fact sheet is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnoses and treatment of a medical or health condition.

© 2014 American College of Rheumatology