Home tasks don't have to be a struggle when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Tweak your cooking and clean-up style -- and make good use of helpful gadgets -- and you'll be back in charge of your home again.
"We don't realize the constant strain we put on our joints," says Sherry Muir, PhD, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Saint Louis University. Small changes in the way you do things, she says, can make a huge difference.
A key part of your strategy: Check your home for the heavy items you use most often for chores, like laundry detergent. Then move them to a position that makes them easier to lift.
"Think about heavy things that you might have to dust around," says Maura Iversen, DPT, a physical therapist and professor at Northeastern University. "Put them in a place that allows you to slide them to the side for dusting rather than lifting them."
Fiona Lofton, a 40-year-old mother of two who's lived with RA for 15 years, reorganized some of her kitchen staples. "After I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis," says the career coach in Columbia College, S.C., "I moved heavy bags, like flour and sugar, to chest or waist level in the pantry, so that I wouldn't have to reach over my head for them."
You can also swap out heavy dishes, cookware, and other items that you use every day for lighter versions. If you can't part with those weighty ceramic plates, use a small wheeled cart to move things from cabinet to table.
Many daily chores would be easier with wheels. "A pail or mop bucket on wheels would make a significant and sudden reduction in strain on joints," Muir says. The same goes for laundry baskets and grocery bags.
Most everyone can stand to improve their form when it comes to carrying shopping bags and other heavy loads. You shouldn't carry any substantial weight with your fingers. "Put the least strain on the smallest joints," Muir says.
Shift shopping bags and purses from your fingers to your forearms or shoulders. When you need to carry laundry, use small baskets or try bags with shoulder straps. You can push your laundry down the hall or even toss it down the stairs.
Go Easy on Your Fingers
They take stress all day long. "They're the smallest joints, the most frequently used, and the most easily destroyed," Muir says. Handles on cookware and cleaning equipment can add to that strain.
You can find kitchen gadgets, cleaning tools, and household supplies with comfortable, large rubber handles and grips. "The bigger the grip, the better," Muir says.
You can also get cleaning equipment, such as scrub brushes, that you can grab hold of with an open palm rather an a "fist" grip. Some brushes allow you to slip your hand through a strap rather than grasp a handle.
But you don't have to spring for all-new kitchen and cleaning equipment. "Slide bicycle handles right over the top of mop and broom handles," Iversen says. "They're cheap and have a finger grip."
When a bike handle won't do, Muir suggests the foam used to insulate pipes in the wintertime. Wrap it around narrow handles with duct tape to make them as thick and cushiony as you need.
Wall-mounted jar openers, rubber jar-lid grippers, and electric can openers can take stress off your knuckles. Self-wringing mops or buckets also help.
There's a better way to wring out rags, too. Typically, you wrap your fingers around the rag, forming fists with both hands, your thumbs touching. "If you put your thumbs together and twist, one goes towards you and one goes away from you, and that is really stressful on the knuckles."
Instead, stack your fists on top of each other to form a column, so that the pinky of the top hand touches the thumb of the bottom hand. When you twist the rag from this position, you'll use your wrists rather than the smaller joints in your fingers, Muir says.
Take a Load Off
Arthritis can affect your knees, hips, and feet, too. Place gel mats in places where you stand for a long time, for example the sink, the kitchen counter, or the table where you fold laundry. Sit on a short stool to save the stress on your knees from kneeling, Iversen says.
"If you're standing at the kitchen counter for a long time, you can have one foot up on a little footstool to take some pressure off your back," she adds.
Rest and Refuel
Remember to pace yourself. You might feel best in the morning, but if you try to knock out your entire to-do list all in one Saturday morning, you may wind up feeling pretty crummy for the rest of the weekend.
"Divide your tasks throughout the day or week with rest in between," Muir says. "Sit down, take the strain off your joints."
Have a healthy snack that includes some protein, carbs, and water, just as you might before strenuous exercise, she says. "Apples and peanut butter are a great example."
"Small meals help keep my energy up so I don't crash and burn," Lofton says. Eating healthy food is helpful, too. After a weekend of pizza and fast food, she can tell the difference. "I feel more stiff, swollen, and just not well after I eat like that."
"Know your limits," Lofton suggests.
Muir agrees. "Learn to respect what your body is asking of you," she says, "and then it will give you more."