Here are our OT-approved tips for making life with rheumatoid arthritis or other joint problems so much easier.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) you know what a pain—literally and figuratively—it can be to get chores and everyday tasks done around the house. In addition to on-and-off joint pain, “patients with rheumatoid arthritis may have deformities in their wrists and hands that can make fine motor skills quite difficult,” says Linda Russell, MD, a rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery.
The first step in reducing joint pain to simplify everyday tasks—from brushing your teeth to loading the dishwasher—is to make sure you’re on appropriate RA medications to control the disease, says Dr. Russell. Plus, “staying active preserves function,” she says, so try to stick with your daily activities as much as possible. “Joint function and preservation can be better maintained when the muscles around the affected joints are strong,” she says.
You can also take some pressure off your joints with specific tips and tricks from occupational therapists. “A patient can work with an occupational therapist who can provide tools that help with the activities of daily living,” Dr. Russell says. Try these household hacks to reduce RA joint pain:
For Food Prep
1. Some kitchen gadgets do the prep work of slicing and chopping for you, suggests Emily Sloane, OTR/L, CHT, a hand therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “The use of a chopper tool or food processor can assist clients to chop and mince more easily,” she says. You can also try a mandoline or an apple wedger.
2. Consider replacing key kitchen tools you use all the time with versions that have enlarged or softened handles, which can ease pressure on joints while gripping, Sloane says.
3. Kitchen scissors can actually be easier to handle than knives for cutting—or, buy pre-cut fruits and veggies at the grocery store.
4. For opening jars, use rubber bands or even dryer sheets around the lid for a better grip. In addition, electric can-openers are a must.
5. “Lining your baking dishes with aluminum foil or parchment paper helps a lot with cleanup,” says Karen Jacobs, EdD, OT, OTR, CPE, FAOTA, a clinical professor at Boston University and a past president of the American Occupational Therapy Association.
6. Use several smaller pans to avoid having to lift heavy loads. “Simply using more pans can ease stress on hands and wrists,” Sloane says. “Make sure they are dishwasher safe to make cleanup a breeze.”
7. Switch to light, non-stick pans with two handles.
8. Throw everything in a lined crock pot. Cooking in large batches and then having leftovers (or freezing for later) can reduce the amount of energy you have to expend in the kitchen.
For Kitchen Organization
9. Anything you use daily should be on counters or lower shelves to avoid having to reach.
10. “Place ingredients that you use daily, such as sugar or coffee, into containers with easy-open lids can make opening much easier,” Sloane says.
11. Lazy susans can help you access hard-to-reach items better as well. Also, “a client has a collapsible back scratcher that she uses for pulling cabinet doors open and reaching for things on shelves,” Jacobs says.
For Washing Dishes
12. Use your dishwasher as much as possible, Sloane says. Another (though less environmentally friendly) option is paper plates.
13. For items you do have to hand-wash, “wearing quality, well-fitted gloves may give you a better grip,” Sloane says. You can also try sponge mitts or sponges with handles. Silicone pans and prep bowls are lighter and easier to grip, and non-stick pans require less scrubbing.
14. “Put dishes in the sink to soak them so that the dirt comes off easier,” Jacobs says. “You can actually put dishwasher detergent in your sink, which seems to clean the dishes even faster and more thoroughly.”
15. Don’t bother with drying—just put dishes on a rack to air dry.
As if you didn’t dread cleaning already, RA can make it even more of a chore.
16. First, instead of lugging around cleaning supplies, get a rolling cart. “You want a cart that’s high enough so you’re not bending over to push it,” Jacobs says.
17. Have a duplicate set of cleaning products on each level of your home so you don’t have to carry them up and down stairs. Sloane recommends Magic Eraser products for easy cleaning, and dust-clinging cloths or pre-moistened covers for easy floor cleaning without mop-wringing.
18. If possible, avoid vacuuming entirely with new technology. “I would highly recommend getting one of those robotic vacuums—they’re fabulous!” Jacobs says. If those are above your price range, try a stick, canister, or backpack-type vacuum to make the load easier to bear. “There are also cordless vacuums that double for carpets and hardwood floor cleanup,” Sloan says.19. Use furniture sliders under legs to make cleaning under large pieces easier.
20. A rolling hamper can also be useful when moving laundry to the washing machine—or, Sloane suggests actually throwing a laundry bag down the stairs instead of carrying it.
21. If you can, think about reinstalling your washer and dryer on the same floor as your bedroom and bathroom, so you won’t have to deal with heavy lifting on the stairs.
22. “Even though the big detergents are more economical, they are just way too heavy, so you might ask somebody to pour it into a smaller one,” Jacobs says. Or, use pod-style detergent.
23. To take pressure off when loading and unloading, Sloane suggests a stool to either sit on for front-loading washers or to stand on for top loaders.
24. Avoid ironing entirely by choosing wrinkle-free fabrics or removing items promptly from the dryer.
For the Bathroom
25. Soap bars are slippery and hair products can be hard to open, so Sloane suggests using pump-style body wash and shampoo in the shower. “Washcloths, wash mitts, or loofahs increase ease of soaping up,” she says.
26. A shower chair (lightweight for easy removal), grab bar, non-stick mat and removable shower head are musts.
27. “Rather than a towel, use a robe when you come out of the shower—you don’t have to use your arms and hands to dry yourself, just put on the bathrobe,” Jacobs says.
28. When drying your hair, use a hairdryer stand so you don’t have to hold it.
29. Electric hygiene products like razors and toothbrushes are your friends—or, stick your toothbrush in a slit in a tennis ball to make it easier to grip. Also, try floss picks instead of regular dental floss.
For Getting Dressed
30. Luckily, yoga pants and leggings are in style, because elastic waists are the easiest to get on—and make sure you’re sitting down when getting dressed for better balance. (Here's what a fashion designer with RA does to make getting dressed easier.)
31. “A rubber band, string, or a key ring on a zipper can help,” Jacobs says. And keep shirts buttoned while washing or folding to save time with pesky buttons or snaps, Sloane says.
32. Slip-on shoes are easier than having to buckle or tie laces. For bras, “front closures, velcro hooks, built-in bra camisoles or pullover styles may save energy,” Sloane says. When shopping, look for clothes you can easily get on and off.
For Cell Phones
Technology is every-present in our home life, but RA can make it difficult to use devices.
33. “Cell phone on speaker is key,” Jacobs says, or use headphones when talking.
34. Take advantage of voice recognition with voice-to-text and voice memo, and use the voice assistant to help you look things up online.
35. Pop-out phone grips that attach to the back of your phone make it easier to hold. “They also save clients energy because you can set up the phone on the table during FaceTime conversations or watching videos online,” Sloane says. Using a stylus may make it easier when you have to type or click.
36. “Cheesy as it sounds, a selfie stick makes it easier to hold the phone while pointing and shooting your best snaps,” Sloane says.
Although it may take a bit of adjustment, you can change your home lifestyle in some simple ways to make RA joint pain more manageable. “You might want to even keep an activity time log to identify which ones start becoming more problematic,” Jacobs says. “Then we can look at strategies to live life with RA to its fullest.”