The day-to-day demands of work can pose many challenges when you have arthritis. That’s true whether you work at a desk job or a job that requires lifting and bending. Fortunately, a few simple principles can help most people get through the day without undue pain. Ergonomically designed chairs, desks, and specific equipment can also help take the strain off painful joints. Here are eight tips from arthritis experts.
Whether you work at a computer or on a construction site, chances are your job requires some repetitive motions. “Repetitive movements can cause repetitive stress injuries, which can exacerbate arthritis pain,” says Andrew Lui, PT, assistant clinical professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation at the University of California, San Francisco, where he counsels people with arthritis and other joint pain. “Whenever possible, take frequent breaks if you have to do work that involves repetitive movements.”
Whether you do a lot of moving at work or sit or stand in one position, your joints are less likely to act up if you keep them in what physical therapists call a neutral position. For knees, for example, the neutral position is slightly bent — the position they are in when you sit in a chair with your feet extended forward a little.
For wrists, neutral position places your hand and forearm in a straight line, so the nerves passing through your wrist aren’t pinched. The neutral position for your neck when you’re working at a desk is with your head held straight. “Whatever kind of work you do, pay attention to the position your body is in,” says Lui. “Try to eliminate unnecessary strain by finding the most comfortable position.”
Staying in any one position for too long also puts stress on your joints. “As much as possible, try to change positions frequently during your working day,” says Kimberly Topp, PhD, professor and chair of the department of physical therapy and rehabilitation services at UC-San Francisco.
If you’re on your feet a lot at work, take frequent breaks to sit. Another strategy that may help: placing one foot on a footstool while you’re standing, in order to change your knee position and relieve strain on your back. (Be sure to alternate between your right and left foot.) If your job involves working with your hands, such as typing or carpentry, alternate tasks frequently so that you change your body position. If your job involves sitting, take breaks to stand up, stretch, and walk around. Desk chairs that allow you to adjust positions can also help prevent unnecessary strain on joints.
“If your job involves lifting objects, be sure to bend your knees when lifting,” says Kate Lorig, RN, DrPH, professor emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of The Arthritis Helpbook. “This puts less strain on your back. Hold objects close to your body in order to reduce the load on your arms and wrists.” Store heavy items in locations that minimize the amount of lifting you have to do. When possible, ask co-workers to help if your arthritis is acting up.
“By using a little advance planning, you can avoid unnecessary strain on troublesome joints,” says Lorig. If you have to climb stairs for something, for instance, think about anything else you might need to bring up or down. That way you can minimize the number of trips you have to take.
The wheel was a terrific invention. So use it. Folding metal carts, wheeled tea carts, utility carts, and wheeled briefcases or suitcases are great ways to move items from place to place without having to carry them. If you’re buying a cart, try out several models to find the one that feels best to you. Ideally, folding carts should be sturdy but light, with a handle that feels comfortable in your hands.
Today, many kinds of tools and gadgets are available in designs made to minimize the strain on joints, especially fingers and hands. Examples include:
- Ergonomic computer keyboards. Designed so that your hands and wrists are aligned to minimize pinching of the nerves in your wrist, these keyboards have been shown to reduce pressure within the carpal tunnel, which carries the nerves that control the hand. Some ergonomic keyboards are adjustable, allowing you to find the position that’s most comfortable for you.
- Doorknob extenders. These clever devices eliminate the need for closing your hand around the knob — something that can be painful if you have arthritis in your hands or fingers.
- Book holders. If your work involves consulting books or manuals, desktop book holders are a great way to minimize strain on your hands. Another new option is eBook readers, which are typically much lighter than books and can be propped up in stands on your desk.
- Pencil grips. If you use a pencil at work, buy a pencil grip, which wraps around the shaft of the pencil, creating a much wider grip. Some pens come with built-in grips.
- Ergonomically designed implements. Many tools, from scissors to screwdrivers, come in varieties designed to minimize joint pain. Because no two people with arthritis are exactly alike, it’s wise to try out several models in order to choose the one that’s best for you.
“The issue for people with arthritis is managing pain, and pain comes from many sources,” says Lorig. “Stress, depression, and fatigue can also increase pain.” So in addition to finding practical strategies and tools to minimize joint strain, it’s important to find ways to relieve stress and maintain a practical outlook.
Learning a few specific relaxation techniques, such as progressive relaxation or meditation, can help. Taking a little time each day for exercise has also been shown to help ease stress and depression. “Exercise has the added benefit of strengthening joint muscles and improving flexibility,” says Lorig. That, in turn, may help ease arthritis pain.