When you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may find certain everyday tasks, like opening a jar, getting dressed in the morning, or using a pair of scissors, to be a little—or even seriously—challenging. That’s because joints in your hands, arms, and legs are often tender, swollen, and even painful from chronic inflammation, a hallmark of the disease.
Adaptability is key, says Carla Kienast, a former corporate communications professional in Dallas, TX, who has lived with RA for 12 years. Sometimes that means finding the best product to suit your purpose. “The right tool can make a huge difference,” she says. “A lot of things can assist you in living a full, fun productive life.”
The following products were praised by people who know firsthand what it is to struggle with making dinner, getting comfortable in bed, or even gripping a pen—so consider adding any or all of them to your online shopping bag:
Joint damage from RA can weaken ligaments and lead to “hypermobility”—when joints bend beyond a normal range of motion, which can be painful and may lead to deformities. Metal ring splints like the Boutonniere Splint—worn on any finger or thumb—help support the joint and keep it in place, easing pain while making tasks that require your fingers that much easier to do, even as they promote healing. “What I really love about them is that they look like jewelry. Most people think they’re really funky rings,” says Lene Andersen, 57, a HealthCentral patient advocate in Toronto, Canada. Interested? Talk to your rheumatologist or physical therapist about getting measured.
Cost: Varies (Andersen paid about $100 each for hers).
Pain or stiffness in your fingers, wrist, elbow, or shoulder can turn opening a jar into a Herculean task. “I used to have to go through this whole routine,” says Kienast, an avid cook. “Hot water, pounding on the lid…” Now Kienast uses an OXO Good Grips jar opener. You use its metal teeth to grip the lid—then hold the handle and open the jar with a simple twist. “I don’t even think about it,” Kienast says. “I just pop open the jar and keep on cooking!”
Food processors are often suggested for people with reduced grip strength from arthritis, which can limit your ability to use a knife. Still, they can be bulky and difficult to clean. For smaller jobs, Kami Hollenbach, 50, of Schuylkill Haven, PA, uses the Pampered Chef Food Chopper. Simply press down on the plunger to activate the stainless steel blades to slice through fruits, veggies, nuts, or cooked meat. “I love this thing!” Hollenbach says. “And it’s so easy to clean. Just take it apart and throw it in the dishwasher. Piece of cake!”
The Chef’n Palm Peeler lets you peel fruits and veggies without using your grip. Just slide the peeler onto your finger, letting it nest comfortably in the palm of your hand. Use it on apples, carrots, or potatoes, and let the stainless steel loop do its work. Also try the Palm Zester (for grip-free zesting) and Palm Brush (for grip-fee cleaning).
When Hollenbach got a reacher grabber as a gag gift for her birthday one year, she never expected to use it. Now, 12 years after her RA diagnosis, she uses it all the time. “I use it to retrieve cans stored in the cabinet above my range, or to get something from the back of my closet,” she says. A reacher-grabber may help you, too, if elbow or shoulder pain limits your reach. The Carex Ultra Grabber comes in two different lengths (26 or 32 inches), features a rotating arm, and locks with the press of a button to hold items in place.
Does your knee or hip pain prevent you from bending down to put on your socks? Kienast uses a sock aid. (You can use your reacher grabber to take your socks back off.) The Carex Sock Aid is covered with terry cloth for extra sock grip, and works with socks of all lengths, including ankle sock and no-shows.
Conventional scissors force you to scrunch your fingers into the handle and also require hand strength to operate. Fiskars’ line of Easy Action Scissors has ergonomic handles and spring-action design that opens the blades after each cut, saving you the effort. They’ve even earned the Arthritis Foundation’s Ease-of-Use Recommendation—a big thumb’s up, if ever there was one. For general crafting needs, such as cutting fabric, try the Premier No.8 Easy Action Bent Scissors.
Banking quality sleep can be hard when you’re in pain. Kienast finds a memory mattress topper can help. “It cushions my joints and takes a lot of the pressure off,” she says. Memory foam supports your body while providing enough give to relieve pressure from your joints. And a mattress topper is a lot less expensive than a whole mattress. Kienast uses the Tempurpedic Tempur-Topper Supreme, a super-plush 3-inch topper. “At first, I got a twin size for my side of the bed,” she recalls. “Then my husband tried it, and he was like, ‘We’re getting a king size!’”
RA of the feet, knees, or hips can make walking difficult—and some days, you may need a little help. “When you can’t stand up and take steps, all of a sudden your world gets very small,” Kienast says. “Use a cane, and your world opens up again.” That’s why Kienast carries a foldable cane—she can stow it in her bag when she’s not using it, and pull it out whenever she needs some extra support. Try the Kitchen Krush Foldable Walking Cane—sturdy, lightweight, and adjustable (from 32 to 36 inches).
Reduced grip strength and finger flexibility makes standard-size pens harder to use, says Hollenbach. So she looks for thicker pens with a cushioned, wide-barrel grip—such as those from Pilot Dr. Grip. “I don’t have to grip them as tight,” Hollenbach says. They’re retractable—so no cap to remove. And Dr. Grip is specially designed for use by those with limited hand and finger strength and flexibility. In fact, it’s the only pen to have been recognized by the Arthritis Foundation for Ease of Use.
Lacking the grip strength to open tightly sealed blister packs or clamshell packages, Marianna Paulson used to try opening them with a knife. “I would stab myself,” she recalls, “or make holes in the package but still not open it.” Paulson, a HealthCentral patient advocate in Vancouver, Canada, and founder of Auntie Stress, now uses the Zip-It Opener. “You slide it along the package quite easily, and it saves your hands from injury,” she says. In fact, the product’s creator, Steve Fisher, first designed it for his mother, who had severe hand arthritis.
Cost: $17 (operates on two AA batteries, not included).
For RA pain, sometimes heat therapy helps, and sometimes cold. With My HeatingPad’s natural hot and cold packs, you can pick. Filled with flax and rice, these compresses can be heated in the microwave or chilled in the freezer. Or, get two and try a little contrast therapy—alternate 15 minutes of cold, with 15 minutes of hot. My Heating Pad comes in various sizes and shapes, depending on your needs. Try the basic hot-cold therapy pack for use just about anywhere on your body.
Holding a book open for extended periods can aggravate hand and wrist RA. The Book Seat reading pillow lets you mount your book (or tablet or e-reader) for hands-free reading. Plus, it’s lightweight and portable, so you can take it with you when travel. Bonus: It doubles as a travel pillow.