The Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Lupus

July 7, 2023

The Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Lupus

Occupational therapists (OTs) are trained to address pain or a lack of mobility, which can make performing certain tasks difficult. When autoimmune patients develop stiff and painful joints, or are recovering from a recent surgery, occupational therapy can be used to help maintain the skills needed to participate in activities that enrich life.

At Lupus LA, we believe in empowering patients with the right knowledge to advocate for the tools, resources and care that will improve their lives. Today, our Live Expert Session, “The Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Lupus” features Occupational Therapy Doctoral Student, Madelyn Cabrera, who shares:

  • How Occupational Therapy Works
  • The Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Lupus Care!
  • Disease and Lifestyle Management Strategies to Help Mitigate Symptoms for Lupus Patients

Do you have questions about Occupational Therapy in Lupus? Watch the replay of this free Live Expert Session below, or scroll down to read the transcript highlights from the talk! If you have questions about how to ask your doctor about occupational therapy, contact our team at info@lupusla.org!


Thank you for joining me here today and thank you to Lupus LA for the opportunity to come in and speak. My presentation is going to be titled “Occupational Therapy’s Role with Lupus” and my name is Madeline Cabrera. To provide a little background about myself: I’m an occupational therapy doctoral student and I’m currently in my 8th term. For the final part of my program, I am actually working on a capstone that focuses on raising awareness on occupational therapy’s role with lupus patients, so I wanted to share more information about our field with the lupus community – and beyond – for those who are curious!

I’m also mentored by Dr. Kristine Carandang, and she is a licensed occupational therapist who has done immense research within the rheumatic population.  I was drawn to working with the lupus community because one of my close relatives was diagnosed in her early twenties, and young adulthood in itself is already difficult to manage. I saw how having an autoimmune condition like lupus took a huge toll on her, and created major changes in her everyday life – whether it’s managing medication, managing symptoms, mental health, physical health – I saw that it was a lot to handle.

So, as I started my journey through my occupational therapy program, I learned that we specialize in helping patients in their everyday life, and I thought we should talk more about how we can work with the lupus community. It really made me passionate about learning how to be more of an advocate for this community! Going over our presentation today, I will be defining three major points – which are:

  • Defining what occupational therapy is and how it works. Many people have heard of Occupational Therapy and some haven’t, or some may not be aware exactly what we do. So that’s something I want to talk a little bit more about to describe who we are.
  • The next point I wanted to go over will be what occupational therapy’s role with lupus patients looks like. I will be going over different areas  that we work on when coming up with treatment plans for lupus patients.
  • Lastly, I wanted to give examples of what it looks like when working with patients to provide tips if you are interested in talking with your provider about getting Occupational Therapy services!

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession with the main goal of promoting health and well being and also independence in daily living. We focus a lot on helping you do things that you want or need to do every day, whether it’s something as simple as making breakfast, being able to play catch outside, managing symptoms of a condition that you have, or adapting to a recent injury.

We focus on helping you continue to do things that are meaningful to you, despite those setbacks that you face or any barriers that you encounter. By doing so, we understand that each individual is different in many aspects. As we all know, lupus patients are not one and the same! So, it is important that we understand different areas, such as your specific wants, your specific needs, your background and limitations when moving forward for us to come up with creating a treatment plan.

What can Occupational Therapists do for lupus patients?

These are some areas that Occupational Therapists can focus on, and they include and are not limited to activities of daily living. These are your basic self-care tasks in the day. Something like brushing your teeth, making your bed, and making breakfast for yourself – basic self care tasks that one has to do each day. We also work a lot with health management, so helping you manage your medication, organize your doctor’s appointment, access resources that are necessary for you.

We also want to help in maintaining your employment and keeping your job and staying in school. So despite any barriers that you encounter, anything new, life changes, we want to help you seek the accommodations or provide recommendations so that you keep doing the things you want or need to do.

We also want to help you continue doing things that you enjoy, whether that’s going outside, playing soccer, painting – those types of things. We try to find ways to help modify a task or provide, again, recommendations to help you keep doing those things that you love to do.

We also provide assistance in family and caregiver training, so we can provide recommendations and different strategies that you can use in case you need some assistance in handling child care or delegating tasks to a caregiver, especially with major changes that come with a chronic condition.

We also focus a lot on home safety, fall prevention and accessibility. This is very important, especially when patients are coming out of the hospital or transitioning back at home. We like to assess if your home is safe to come back to, and we get rid of any hazardous areas. We want to make sure that it’s accessible for you through any recommendations by modifying the environment.

What makes the Occupational Therapy perspective unique?

We understand the individual, their environment, their meaningful occupations, and how they all play a role in health and well being. We take a holistic approach, and understand that each person is different from one another, and that we consider them as a whole when coming up with a treatment plan.

What does Occupational Therapy’s role in Lupus look like?

Occupational Therapists help doing meaningful and purposeful SynOps, and we understand the complex and dynamic interactions between the person, their environment and their occupations. For this slide, I will be going over different areas that we can work with when working with patients diagnosed with lupus. This also includes, but is not limited to, symptom management. We work on understanding your symptoms and understanding your needs both physically and mentally.

We understand that a chronic or autoimmune condition with lupus is difficult in itself, so we understand that lupus can vary in symptoms. We all know that there can be flares and uncertainties or an increase in symptoms, so we try to work on ways to help manage that too. We also can provide recommendations in areas such as managing medication, doctors visits, finding support that you need in order to help your health and wellness.

Occupational Therapists can also specialize in physical agent modalities. That’s a big word, but basically it means that we can use thermal heat to help you with pain, to increase blood flow and to decrease inflammation. A lot of occupational therapists work in a hand therapy setting, and this is just an example of paraffin wax, which is another physical agent modality.

We can also provide education on energy conservation and fatigue management. Fatigue is a very common symptom with lupus, and can impact the ability to do things that are important to you and meaningful for you. So Occupational Therapists can provide strategies to help conserve your energy and allow it to fit into your everyday life!

One tip that we have is the four P’s, which stand for:

  • Prioritize
  • Plan
  • Pace 
  • Position

What this can look like is prioritizing important tasks first in the day, and beginning with things that need to get done first when you have a lot on your plate. We can also recommend having proper body positioning just like how it looks like in this diagram. 

Instead of bending your back, try to sit upright when picking up things or sitting in front of the computer, as sitting upright can allow for more oxygen to enter your lungs – so just small things like this. We can also recommend pacing yourself and taking small breaks when doing activities and not rushing or even planning out your day or week ahead of time, making sure that your schedule allows for a good night’s sleep or to possibly spread out activities throughout the week for balance. We can even help with planning to get things together and prepared before doing things like cooking or taking a shower or washing your dog. These small little things that can help conserve your energy throughout the day.

We also work a lot with joint protection. Joint pain and inflammation is another symptom of lupus that’s really common, and as Occupational Therapists, we can help provide you with tips on protecting your joints. Whether it’s avoiding using tight grips or holding large and heavy objects. Like this example, try to hold it with larger joints or having it close to your body so, just like how it looks in the middle diagram, try to hold it with your elbows and wrists rather than just your hands to reduce any stress it causes in the joints.

Occupational Therapists also work a lot with stress management, and I probably don’t have to explain this. Living with lupus is stressful on its own, and sometimes stress can trigger symptoms. Occupational Therapists can look at your lifestyle, your support system, your job, your physical and mental health, and work with you to come up with different coping strategies to manage your stress, whether that be relaxing techniques such as breathing or channeling your thoughts within a journal, or just encouraging support from others in your life!

We also provide recommendations on adapting or simplifying tasks in your everyday life and also in your environment. We take a look at your environment and provide recommendations to help you perform better and more comfortably. This can be done in any setting that you complete your everyday tasks or your meaningful occupations, whether that is a work from home setup or just making sure your home environment is safe by avoiding any fall risk.

We can also provide any tips on adaptive equipment that can help you do things with ease and provide resources to purchase them through affordable websites. Whether that be something as simple as a thick foam tube to replace the grip of an everyday object when you’re experiencing joint pain, or something like a reacher that can help you pick up objects from the floor to help you conserve energy.

We also work closely with integrating medical recommendations through your daily routines. Lupus can consist of a lot of symptoms that we haven’t talked about previously, including skin or sun sensitivity, headaches, skin or mouth sores, and we can work with you to provide ways to manage symptoms in order to do things that you enjoy, such as recommending proper clothing (especially with summer and when going outside), using sun protection, helping with bandaging when necessary, or just overall help becoming prepared when you’re experiencing these symptoms.

We also work closely with physical activity and helping integrate physical activity into your daily life and routine. Physical activity, as we all know, is very beneficial to our overall health and can help a lot with strengthening different parts of your body, such as your heart, your lungs, your bones. As occupational therapists, we can gauge what forms of physical activity are you ready for, what is appropriate for your lifestyle, and how to integrate that into your day to day life.

Occupational Therapists also provide recommendations to different splints or orthotics that can help protect, mobilize or support your joints in order to help you do things that you need to do with ease, which can be really useful when experiencing joint pain.

If you see yourself in any of these activities, here are some tips on getting Occupational Therapy services if you are interested. These are some personal tips that I put together:

  • Keep track of your symptoms when you can, whether that’s writing it on a journal or keeping it in your notes, app, writing the dates, that would be really helpful whenever you’re going to see your doctor, because, of course, seeing your doctor doesn’t happen too often. We often have to wait, so having that prepared will be great.
  • You can also share how your symptoms impact your daily life and your ability to do things that you want or need to do.
  • Ask your provider more about Occupational Therapy services to determine if it’s the right fit for you!

That concludes my presentation! Thank you so much to Lupus LA for having me. It was a lot of information, so if you have any additional questions or would like to reach out to me, please contact me through my email or message Lupus LA at info@lupusla.org! 

For more information on Occupational Therapy: