Helping Yourself Live with Arthritis

You have arthritis. And until scientists have perfected modern-day miracles such as regrowing cartilage or being able to control our immune cells (they’re working on it), arthritis can’t be cured completely.

How frankly you face your arthritis, however, can make a huge difference in how you are able to cope with the problem and how much it affects the quality of your life.

You may need to be flexible and change how you do things. You may have to give up some activities and substitute others. And some people believe that your attitude can affect your immune system and how your body functions, so you may want to work on how you think about things as well. The bottom line? There are many, many ways to adapt and compensate so that arthritis has the least possible impact on how you live.

Give Your Joints a Helping Hand

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you’re well aware that day-to-day activities can be very painful. Small helpful devices or gadgets designed to make it easier to grip or reach things can go a long way toward making your life more comfortable. Some aids, such as the ones listed subsequently, you can make on your own or buy at a drugstore.

One of the best places to find out about helpful devices such as these is the Guide to Independent Living for People with Arthritis. Produced by the Arthritis Foundation, this publication features just about every item imaginable. (To contact the foundation, call 800-283-7800 or go to )

Fatter handles. Getting a grip on small everyday items such as knives and potato peelers can be particularly painful. If you buy new ones, choose those with fat rubberized handles that are easy to grip. To convert your old ones, get pieces of soft plastic tubing or pipe insulation at a hardware store in various sizes and slip them over the old handles. Ask the clerk at the store to cut them into the lengths you need.

Sit higher. Maneuvering into and out of a chair can be a challenge. One quick way to make it easier is to raise the seat. Insert a firm pillow under the bottom cushion or in the seat of the chair. You’ll find you’re that much closer to “landing” when you go to sit down and have less far to go when you get up again.

Adapt your wardrobe. Avoid buying clothes with back zippers or multiple buttons. And for favorite garments, consider asking a tailor to replace buttons with hook-and-loop material (such as Velcro) or snaps.

Grab bars. Hoisting yourself out of a tub or even a shower can be difficult. A well-placed grab bar to help pull yourself up or just steady yourself can be a tremendous boon. Or, if you plan to renovate your bathroom, you may want to choose a walk-in shower or one with a built-in seat so that you can shower while sitting. Don’t forget the vital nonslip mat, too, if you don’t already have one.

Using Splints And Other Supports

A splint is a device made of cloth, plastic, or metal that straps onto a joint to keep it immobile. Splints are made for wrists, neck, fingers, hands, back, knees, and ankles. They help you by preventing your joint from moving while it is inflamed, which both eases pain and helps keep you from damaging the joint. A splint should be light enough that you can wear it comfortably and continue to do range-of motion exercises.

Ready-made splints may fill the bill, or you may need custom-made ones. These are made “on the spot” by a physical or occupational therapist from plastics that are molded to fit your joint and then attached with Velcro straps.

While a splint can be useful to rest or protect your joints, using one too often can weaken and stiffen joints and thus limit their flexibility. Your best bet, doctors say, is to use a splint only during flare ups and remove it several times a day to put your joint through some range-of-motion exercises.

If you need to use a cane, crutches, or walker, be sure that your doctor or physical therapist shows you how to use it properly to avoid further harm to the joint. A cane, for example, should be held in the hand opposite the painful joint. It should fit right, too: When you’re standing up, the top of the cane should come to the crease inside your elbow, between the wrist and the upper arm.

Sometimes keeping your independence means easing up on your “image.” Canes, crutches, and walkers can help you get around. Some people are hesitant or stubborn about using these supportive devices in the mistaken belief it makes them look “old.” Try a new thought on for size: They make you look determined and gutsy. If a cane can help save a joint or relieve pain, don’t hesitate to use one. You can find a comfortable plain variety at the drugstore or have a little fun with it by shopping around for a more decorative model for flair. And it may cheer you to know that if your doctor Writes a prescription or recommendation for these devices, your insurance company may pay all or part of the cost.

You’re Not Alone

It can be a little too easy to slip into depression when you’re fighting a disease such as arthritis. You may not be able to garden all day, go hiking with your friends, or even fix the fancy dinners you used to love preparing for special occasions. You may have unpleasant reactions to the medications you are taking. In fact, you may both look and feel so different that you hardly feel like yourself If you begin to feel blue or just begin to have trouble coping with your health problems, realize that you aren’t alone. There are caring people who can help and who have gone through this themselves. And there are professionals well versed in the problems you’ve encountered, who can offer invaluable advice and support. You may not be accustomed to sharing your troubles, but this isn’t the time to be too proud to seek help or companionship.

Here are some ways to reach out:

  • Talk to your doctor Besides a sympathetic ear, your doctor may offer you a referral to an appropriate professional, prescribe antidepressant medication or have good suggestions for supportive reading.
  • Look in your newspaper’s calendar section for arthritis support groups. Or you can find compassionate listeners even in support groups with another theme, such as Overeaters Anonymous or groups for retirees.
  • Find a therapist. If you’ve never tried counseling, you’ll be amazed at the comfort it can bring.
  • Form your own group of friends with arthritis, who get together once a week for coffee at a member’s home. You can share tips and coping strategies or just commiserate over cake. And don’t, forget the amazing ability of laughter to lift your spirits. Rent a comedy video, and celebrate some humor together.
  • Check with your local YMCA or community center for classes, meetings, and trips for those with arthritis.
  • Contact the Arthritis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors classes and produces books and a monthly magazine. (To contact the foundation, call 800-283-7800 or look up on the Internet.) You can request pampwets or other information both from your computer and over the phone.

Finding The Right Shoes And Orthotics

If you have rheumatoid arthritis in your feet, it’s crucial to find shoes that fit well and protect your feet and ankles. They should be light and made of a breathable material such as leather or canvas, with good shock absorption and a stiff back. If you wear shoes with heels, they should be no higher than one inch.

Orthotics is a fancy name for special inserts that make shoes fit better and support your feet. The best kind are custom made for you by a podiatrist, orthotist, or pedorthist. Orthotics help because they spread your weight more evenly over your foot rather than allowing it to be concentrated in one place.

If the shape of your feet has changed from arthritis, you may need specially made shoes. Your doctor can steer you to a specialty shoemaker. Custom made shoes are more expensive than regular shoes, of course, so check to see if your insurance will cover part of the cost.

To help avoid problems, keep your feet clean, with nails trimmed straight across. Watch for blisters and calluses, and treat them right away if they appear. Pad blisters with moleskin pads available from the drugstore, and apply antibiotic ointment if the skin tears. For calluses, treat your feet to a I5-minute soak, then file down the callus gently with an emery board. (Never attempt to treat foot problems yourself if you are diabetic, however.)

Arthritis And Your Love Life

When your joints are aching or certain positions are painful, you may find yourself seldom if ever in the mood for sex. You could decide to give up on the whole idea, but this is rarely the best answer. A warm and loving sexual side to your relationship can add comfort and great pleasure to your life-and your partner’s and giving it up can be hard on both of you.

The first step is to talk to your partner and explain the problems you are having. Now is no time for reticence. You may be able to change positions slightly or spend more time in foreplay. Something as simple as placing a pillow under your hips can erase some of the strain, or you may find that making love while on your side is the most comfortable position. The Arthritis Foundation publishes a free “Living and Loving” guide, which offers detailed help, including specific alternate positions for particular kinds of aches and pains.

Plan romance for those times of the day when you have the least pain and the most energy. You also may find it more comfortable to take a warm bath first or to warm up the sheets with an electric blanket.

Rethink Your Routines

When rheumatoid arthritis or another inflammatory disease flares up, every little move can hurt and can even damage your joints. You need to be smart about using your body. You can make every motion count and reduce pain by approaching your tasks more efficiently.

Think about how to minimize strain on your body: Every little bit helps, sometimes more than you may think possible. Remember, the world won’t end if you relax your standards. The choice is clear: Immaculate house, buzzcut lawn and aching joints? Or a less perfect environment and less pain? Here are some tips to aid day-to-day living.

In the Kitchen and Laundry Room

Lighten your daily routine. This is another time to examine what “image” might be costing you. Ask yourself if daily vacuuming is really important to your happiness. Or, if you’re a die-hard housekeeper, now’s the time to splurge and get yourself that new lightweight vacuum you’ve been admiring in the ads. Yes, it really does make a difference pushing this light machine rather than your old clunky one. Likewise, replace your iron with a lighter model, or better yet, put shirts on hangers to dry and give up ironing completely! If you have heavy or earthenware dishes, consider getting a cheerful but lightweight set for everyday use.

Spare your fingers. Tie or loop strips of cloth around drawer handles and the refrigerator door, so you can pull them open with your arm and not your hand. Use your palm to open jars, or invest in a specialized can opener for people with arthritis. Seal plastic containers with your elbow, not your thumb or fingers. (You can order special can openers and such from the Arthritis Foundation at 800-283-7800.)

Don’t stretch. Before your arthritis hit, you may have routinely strained to get things out of a top cupboard or reached over the washing machine to the overhead cup-boards without a thought about it. You can relearn these habits. Rearrange your cupboards so that the items you need most often are stored within easy reach. When you must get items from high shelves, use a sturdy step stool.

For cooking on that back burner, use long-handled utensils to stir instead of reaching over. Use long-handled wooden tongs to pick up items you can’t reach easily and to retrieve clothes from the dryer.

Protect your back. When you’re shopping, tote your bags in a small, foldable cart. If you must lift something, bend your knees and not your back. (But remember, when your knees are bothering you, it’s best not to lift at all)

Slide, don’t lift. Whenever possible, slide objects instead of picking them up.

Throughout the House

Take a good look at your furniture. If you’re like many of us, your house has practically filled up on its own over the years, without much rhyme or reason. You’ve added pieces of furniture where they fit, maybe squeezing in a couch your neighbor was giving away or stashing a beloved old armchair in the corner of the living room. Or perhaps you’re the opposite: You have a keen sense of decor and your home is lovingly, elegantly furnished. Either way, now it’s time to look at your home with new eyes. Is it difficult to get around because of too much furniture? Take a deep breath and either call Goodwill or have some items moved to storage. When you get out of bed at night, do you have to circumvent several things on your way to the bathroom? Clear your path. If your mattress is ancient and mushy, take yourself off to the mattress store: You need a firm mattress, and you may want an egg crate foam pad on top for extra comfort. Move chairs with arms into your favorite spots. These are much easier to get into and out of.

Change your doorknobs. This relatively inexpensive change can make day-to-day life much easier. Instead of round doorknobs that can be difficult to grip, choose the lever variety that need only to be lightly pushed.

Slip-proof your house. Scatter rugs may be attractive, but they’re easy to slip on and sometimes hard to vacuum. And, if you’re using a cane or walker, they’re catastrophes waiting to happen. Box them up or give them away.

Switch on, switch off. Swap your standard wall switches with the small toggle for new ones you can turn on and off by simply pushing or bumping them. Likewise, you may want to replace the lamps you use most often with those that you turn on and off with a touch anywhere on the base.

In the Bathroom

Change handles. The handles on regular water taps can be difficult to turn; have them replaced with lever handles you can lightly push on and off.

Tie up your soap. Leaning over to fish your slippery soap off the tub or shower floor is not a good idea. You can mount a dispenser on the wall, filled with liquid soap you dispense with a push, or try soap on a rope, decorative soap with a long cord loop through the center. These can be hung over your arm or around your neck for easy retrieval.

Try a whirlpool. When it comes time for remodeling, you may want to consider installing a whirlpool bath, which can give lovely relief to aching limbs. Of course, you’ll want to include a handrail on the side of the tub.

Walk into your shower. If it’s possible, install a walk-in shower, one with a seat so you can shower while resting your legs. Or use a sturdy portable bath stool.

Day-TO-Day Living Made Easier

And there’s still more you can do:

Go for automatic. If your car doesn’t have an automatic transmission, now’s the time to make the switch. Likewise, here’s the case for that automatic garage door opener you’ve always wanted.

Get a permit. When you have arthritis, walking from the far end of the mall parking lot is not a good idea. While you may dislike the term, you’re one of the people those reserved “handicapped” parking spaces are set aside for. Apply at your motor vehicle bureau for a handicapped parking license or sticker. You will likely need a form or note from your doctor, so call the bureau first to ask for details.

Change your job description. Especially if you’ve been together for a while, you and your mate probably have a clear split of duties. One cooks; one does dishes. One mops; one dusts. One changes the oil; one washes the car. These vary for everyone, but the point is that you may need to change your pattern when one partner has arthritis and the other doesn’t. You may not be fond of changing the status or even admitting that certain tasks pain you but marriage is a partnership, which means sharing what comes to us in life. Talk to your spouse and explain the problem. You may even find that you both enjoy doing different “Jobs” for a change.

Get help. Now may be the time especially during painful flare-ups. Empty out your spare-change stash and hire a neighbor teen to mow the lawn. Call a maid service to do your spring cleaning. Take your car to be washed instead of doing it by hand. Spend what you can to spare your joints, and save your energy for things that are more fun.

Think ahead. Before you do even small tasks, think them through. You want to avoid jarring, bouncing, painful movements and during flare-ups, minimize all movement. If you’re cooking, put all the ingredients in one spot (and, of course, you’ve already arranged those cupboards so that items you use often are together in the first place). Ask yourself, “What’s the least stressful way I can do this?”

Change positions often. One of the worst things you can do for yourself is to sit or stand in one position. Keep shifting about so that you don’t stiffen up.

Use the largest joint possible. If you’re holding a cup of tea, use your palms, not your fingers. If you’re pushing a door open, use your shoulder or buttocks, not your wrist.

Keep warm. Getting chilled seems to make arthritic joints ache, so keep yourself toasty. Dress in layers to keep your joints warm. Have leaky windows sealed up. If your favorite chair is under an air vent, have it moved.

Protect your hands. Wear your purse or tote bag across your shoulder instead of lugging it in your hands. If you must carry heavy objects, hold them with both arms close to your body.

Plan ascents and descents. If you have one leg that’s stronger or less painful, start up the stairs with that leg, and start down with the same one. Always use a handrail (and be sure you have rails on all the steps in and near your home, including the porches). If you have serious problems with stairs, consider installing stair lifts in your home or moving your bedroom to the first floor. Some people who move from a two-or three-story house to a one-level house find that life’s a lot easier.

Make Some Changes At Work

Many of us have workplaces that were, well, thrown together rather than designed. A regular desk has been converted to hold a desktop computer. Filing cabinets have been added as needed. Older files may be kept in bins on top of the file cabinets. Tools may be scattered about.

For joint health and especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis you can’t afford such a haphazard layout for a place in which you spend 40 or more hours a week.

Protect your wrists. A painful wrist condition called carpal tunnel syndrome can result from repetitive motions such as typing on a keyboard. This pain is caused by pressure on the nerve where it passes through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. Buy a wrist support that sits in front of the keyboard. They’re available at computer or office supply stores.

Use good mechanics. Just as you do at home, if you must stoop to lift objects, do so with your knees bent. Instead of pushing a door open with your hand, use your hip, shoulders, or upper arm.

Strive for comfort. Insist on a comfortable chair at work, with arms if possible and wheels to help you get around your place of business more easily. Adjust your chair height so your desk or work space is two inches below your elbow. If you work on cars or other machinery, use a stool with wheels, and choose lighter-weight tools whenever possible.

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