How to Clean When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis

Experts share tips on accomplishing your spring cleaning to-do list—minus the rheumatoid arthritis pain!

Katie Alberts
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Cleaning, Spring Cleaning,  Rheumatoid Arthritis, RA

Ready to shake off the winter doldrums and spruce up your home and yard? Try these expert tips—they can help you make the most of your time while minimizing rheumatoid arthritis (RA)-related joint pain and fatigue!

If you need to…

Mow the lawn
“Most people have the handle of their lawn mower set several inches too low, causing them to bend and strain their lower back,” says physical therapist John Gallucci Jr., founder of JAG Physical Therapy in West Orange, NJ. “You want to be standing as straight as possible while you mow—dig out your manual to find the ideal settings for your height.”

And it’s good to take breaks every 10 minutes: “You may not realize it, but the heavy vibration of mowers and other motorized tools can irritate your nerves and inflame your joints,” says orthopedic surgeon Taizoon Baxamusa, MD, of the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute in Morton Grove, Ill.

Tip! Instead of lifting bags for lawn clippings off the ground, use clothespins to attach them to a fence and fill ’em without bending!

Store your stuff
“A few years ago, stores were full of these huge plastic storage tubs,” remembers Gallucci. “People would fill them up and try to lift them, and then hurt themselves. Now we’ve seen a move to smaller, more manageable sizes of storage containers. Divide the contents of your old big bins and boxes into smaller ones—your back, shoulders and neck will thank you!”

Tip! Reconsider bulk shopping trips. “Hauling a tray with two dozen cans of beans may not be worth it if you have arthritis,” says Gallucci. “If you can’t resist the bargains, be careful about how you lift large items—bend from the knees and lift with your legs.”

Prune the bushes
Switching to ergonomic pruning shears makes a huge difference, says Dr. Baxamusa. “With traditional shears you have to squeeze really hard, which puts pressure on your basilar joint—the joint where your thumb meets the wrist. Ergonomic versions require less squeezing because the points meet without your having to completely close the handles.”

Tip! When you want to trim the stems of a bouquet, skip shears and scissors. Instead, lay the stems on a cutting board and use a knife—slicing motions are easier on stiff, achy hands than the squeezing required by shears.

Vacuum or deep-clean rugs
“One of the biggest cleaning mistakes arthritis sufferers make is standing still while vacuuming,” says Shelly Peterman Schwarz, author of Home Accessibility: 300 Tips for Making Life Easier (Demos Health, 2012). “You really need to walk while you vacuum, even if it’s slowly. Standing still and just pushing and pulling the machine puts extra stress on your back and wrists.”

Tip! Need to sweep? Schwarz recommends grabbing a child’s play broom (i.e., a broom with a short handle) so you can sit while you sweep.

Tend to your garden
“I tell patients with arthritis that they should be more aware of the nicks and scrapes that come with gardening than other folks,” says Gallucci. Why? “When hands are already prone to inflammation, small cuts—and especially jagged lacerations—can compound swelling and pain.” Luckily, the solution is easy: Invest in a great, slim-fitting pair of gardening gloves!

Tip! Pulling weeds? In between all that repetitive motion, slowly flex each finger backward, just slightly. “This is a yoga-like move called a ‘differential hand stretch’—I do it all the time before surgery!” says Dr. Baxamusa.

Paint exterior trim
“Just because you can do the motions required for a painting project doesn’t mean you should do them for hours at a time,” notes Gallucci. “In the spring, my practice sees a tremendous number of shoulder injuries due to painting: impingement syndrome, rotator cuff tendinitis and more. I suggest working in 20-minute intervals—and stretching your shoulders before and after each work period—to prevent pain.” Another great option? “Hire the neighbor kid to do it!” 

Tip! If you do a lot of painting, think about buying an angled paintbrush. Designed with an L-shaped offset handle, the tool forces your arms and shoulders to do the work normally done by hands and wrists.

Plan an all-day cleanup
“You wouldn’t tackle a marathon without training, but patients often decide to spend a full weekend tackling chore after chore, especially if they’re selling a house or prepping for guests,” says Dr. Baxamusa. “It’s never a good idea: You’re much better off spreading out the tasks over two weeks.” Gallucci agrees: “After virtually hibernating during winter, people start taking on big projects and spending all day outside. Yes, the sunshine is tempting—but pace yourself and you’ll enjoy better health!”

Tip! Have a to-do list that’s too long to ignore? Alternate tasks that stress different parts of your body and different groups of joints. For example, dusting a ceiling fan in the morning should be followed by something that doesn’t tax your shoulders, like bending to clean out a drawer.

March 2014