Novel exercise trial targets people with rheumatoid arthritis

University of South Australia researchers are exploring the potential of blood flow restriction training to improve the strength and mobility of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

University of South Australia researchers are working with consumer peak body Arthritis SA to explore the potential of blood flow restriction training to improve the strength and mobility of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease more prevalent in over 65s than younger adults that can cause severe pain and swelling of the joints.

BFR training is an exercise technique where people wear pressurised bands – similar to blood pressure 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.

Dr Hunter Bennett Image: Cath Leo

The research aims to see if BFR training twice a week for eight weeks can help improve physical function and quality of life for people with rheumatoid arthritis, said research lead Dr Hunter Bennett – an exercise scientist.

“Rheumatoid arthritis prevalence is approximately 2 per cent of the total Australian population, but it is more prevalent in older adults,” Dr Bennett told Australian Ageing Agenda. “Approximately 5 per cent of females between 65 and 74 have rheumatoid arthritis, and approximately 4 per cent of men.”

In Australia, rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common form of arthritis, affecting more than 450,000 people. Globally, more than 18 million people live with the condition. Women are two-three times more likely to get rheumatoid arthritis than men.

“Rheumatoid arthritis can be a particularly debilitating disease. It’s caused by the immune system attacking healthy tissues, which leads to pain and swelling, joint degradation, and a loss of muscle mass and strength,” Dr Bennett said.

“While medicines can reduce the symptoms, they don’t address loss of muscle strength and function. The best way to increase strength and counteract muscle loss is through resistance training, but this is often problematic for people with rheumatoid arthritis because of pain, fatigue, or risk of injury.”

BFR training offers an alternative, said Dr Bennett. It is considered a safe and effective method for improving strength and function across many clinical populations, including people with osteoarthritis, that is already in use across many sporting and rehabilitation settings in Australia.

“As this technique uses very low loads, it’s a viable option for people with rheumatoid arthritis. So, in our study, we’re looking at how BRF could increase people’s strength, and hopefully increase their movement and overall wellbeing.”

Dr Bennett explains more here:

Study now recruiting participants

The research team is seeking expressions of interest from women and men aged 45-75 years with diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis to participate in the eight-week intervention.

To date, four people have joined the study but it is “very early stages”, Dr Bennett told AAA. “Only one of these are older than 65, with the rest being between 50 and 65. We are aiming to recruit approximately 20.”

Older participants in receipt of aged care support are welcome to join, he said. “As long as they are able to make it into the University of South Australia City East Campus twice per week to conduct the supervised training and meet the inclusion criteria.”

Eligibility criteria includes:

  • a stable consistent medication regime for at least the last 3 months
  • no weight training regularly in the last 12 months
  • no diagnosis of cardiovascular disease or fibromyalgia
  • no history of joint replacement surgery.

The researchers expect to wrap up data collection around July next year and analyse the results in August.

“This is a standalone study that aims to access both the effectiveness of this training on measures of strength and functional capacity, as well as acceptability measures – that is do the participants find it tolerable and suitable for their condition,” Dr Bennett said.

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Tags: blood flow restriction training, hunter bennett, rheumatoid-arthritis, university of south australia,

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