Blood flow restriction may help relieve arthritis

The last thing you would want to do is restrict your blood flow, right? This is why we try to keep our cholesterol levels low. High cholesterol can restrict blood flow, and that’s bad – isn’t it? Well yes, but also no – in some circumstances.

One of those circumstances is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. For sufferers, blood flow restriction may indeed bring some welcome relief.

But please don’t take this as a carte blanche invitation to load up on high-cholesterol foods. That’s not what medical science is telling us to do. What it is telling us is that restricting blood flow – in a controlled way – can help relieve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Blood flow restriction (BFR) training

BFR training is an exercise technique where people wear pressurised bands – or cuffs – to slow blood flow to muscles while they train. The cuff allows blood flow into the limb but delays its exit, which helps develop muscle strength without the need for heavy weights.

The use of BFR training is quite common in sporting fields as a way of increasing muscle strength. It has now been shown to be quite effective as part of many rehabilitation programs.

That’s good for athletes but how can it help with arthritis?

As many older Australians know, rheumatoid arthritis can be a debilitating disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue. This leads to pain and swelling, resulting in joint degradation.

What some might not realise is that it can also cause loss of muscle mass and strength. This is where blood flow restriction training comes to the fore, and a new University of South Australia (UniSA) trial hopes to deliver promising results.

Dr Hunter Bennett, an exercise scientist at UniSA, says the trial aims identify interventions that could improve the quality of life for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

“Rheumatoid arthritis can be a particularly debilitating disease,” he says. “While medicines can reduce the symptoms, they don’t address loss of muscle strength and function.”

Resistance training works well to increase muscle strength but for many arthritis sufferers it’s not an option, said Dr Bennett. “This is often problematic for people with rheumatoid arthritis because of pain, fatigue, or risk of injury,” he says.

A new alternative

BFR is used across many sporting and rehabilitation settings in Australia and is considered a safe and effective method for improving strength and function across many clinical populations, including people with osteoarthritis.

“As this technique uses very low loads, it’s a viable option for people with rheumatoid arthritis,” says Dr Bennett.

“So, in our study, we’re looking at how BFR could increase people’s strength, and hopefully increase their movement and overall wellbeing.”

UniSA’s research team is seeking expressions of interest from women and men aged 45-75 years with diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. So if you live in or near Adelaide, you can register your interest here.

You can also see Dr Bennett explain the concept further via this YouTube video.

Do you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis? Would you be willing to try blood flow restriction training? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Common drug can treat hand osteoarthritis, study finds

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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