The role of the occupational therapist is busy and rewarding, says Aisling McCartney

occupational therapist, Aisling McCartney, rheumatology team, arthritis team, arthritis digest

Occupational therapists improve people’s ability to complete everyday tasks when they are having difficulties due to health conditions and ageing. Their aim is to help people better their ability to function as independently as possible so they can participate in activities that are important to them. An occupational therapist will identify and eliminate barriers to independence (for example preparing food and/or going to work) so people can participate in normal daily life.

A consultant may refer someone to an occupational therapist after a diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis. People with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia can also be referred to occupational therapy, although this usually takes longer than if they have inflammatory arthritis.

Intervening early with occupational therapy is key to successful management of arthritis and related conditions.

Initial contact

At the first meeting with an occupational therapist, the individual is assessed to ascertain the challenges that their health condition has on daily living. The occupational therapist then outlines aids and equipment that can make daily living easier.

Each individual receives an exercise programme and general exercise advice to maintain and improve their range of movement. They are made aware of community groups and support groups where they can meet others with similar issues.

At the end of the first meeting, a person is armed with information to help manage their condition and knowledge about who to turn to if problems arise.

Tailored aspects of our programmes include vocational rehabilitation, which enable people to continue being able to work. Fatigue management programmes, joint protection programmes and relaxation sessions give people the chance to meet with – and learn fromothers in similar situations.

Arthritis impacts people in different ways, but people are generally seen by our occupational service one to six times, depending on their situation.

Our service allows people to contact us directly to help manage flares, functional issues or to modify or renew splints. We offer a wide range of custom-made splints and prefabricated splints to address pain, swelling, deformity and function.

occupational therapist, Aisling McCartney, rheumatology team, arthritis team, arthritis digest

Aisling McCartney, Josephine Harte and Sharon Wray from the Rheumatology Occupational Therapist at the Western Health and Social care Trust in Northern Ireland

The wider team

Occupational therapists interact closely with the rest of the rheumatology team. Monthly team meetings are held and further contact with the rheumatology consultant is made when intervention is completed, together with discharge reports.

Our occupational therapy team meets with teams from other areas in Northern Ireland, to improve service delivery in each region.

Liaising regularly with a host of services, occupational therapists link in frequently with GPs, physiotherapists, podiatrists, dietitians and clinical psychologists. The charity Versus Arthritis helps musculoskeletal (MSK) health professionals share ideas, talk about best practice and connect with peers through its MSK Champions Programme. The charity recently launched an MSK Forum in Northern Ireland to help local services rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Together, we are all focused on transforming the support available to people living with musculoskeletal pain such as arthritis.

As the population ages, our workload is busier than ever. It can be frustratingly difficult for people with osteoarthritis to be referred to occupational therapy. In the future I hope we will see a more direct referral process for this group. Untreated osteoarthritis can lead to major workplace sick leave and unemployment. MSK conditions, such as back pain and arthritis, account for one-fifth of all sickness absences and are responsible for approximately 28.4 million working days lost to the UK economy each year. Accessing early intervention is key in reducing not only the patient’s pain but the socioeconomic cost.


Our service aims to improve experiences for our patients so we gather feedback on how people think we should shape what we do in the future. Occupational therapy is a very rewarding area to work in; we are often told of the change we have made to our patients’ lives.

PS Did you know that Arthritis Digest Magazine is labelled the best UK Arthritis blog from thousands of blogs on the web ranked by traffic, social media followers, domain authority & freshness?