Objective: To study the short-term effects of physical therapy (ice massage or wax packs, thermal baths, and faradic hand baths) and exercise therapy on the rheumatoid hand.
Methods: The effect of individual physical therapy and exercise therapy programs was evaluated in 50 randomly selected rheumatoid arthritis inpatients (38 women and 12 men). Mean patient age (+/- SD) was 47.94 +/- 11.22 years, and mean disease duration was 5.04 +/- 4.80 years. The control group consisted of 50 randomly selected rheumatoid arthritis outpatients (37 women and 13 men; mean age 48.46 +/- 10.65 years, mean duration of disease 5.23 +/- 4.89 years) who at the time of the investigation were not receiving any physical or exercise therapy. The clinical indices used for evaluation of inflammation included erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), pain intensity, proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint size, and Ritchie articular index. Hand grip strength, palmar tip-to-tip and key pinch finger strength, finger range of motion, and activities of daily living (ADL) were the parameters used to assess the functional hand status. The study was single-blinded and of 3 weeks duration.
Results: In the physical therapy treated group, there was an improvement for most of the observed indices from baseline parameters that achieved statistical significance (P < 0.01 and P < 0.005) after the 3-week study period. ESR and PIP joint size improved clinically but failed to reach statistical significance. Patients had a more significant improvement in hand pain, joint tenderness, and ADL score (P < 0.005) than in range of motion (P < 0.01). All parameters in the control group slightly deteriorated over the study period.
Conclusion: At least in the short term, physical and, particularly, exercise therapy produce a favorable improvement in the functional status of the rheumatoid hand.