13 Surprising Challenges of RA (and Some Smart Solutions)

by Jerilyn Covert Health Writer

When you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), some struggles—like trying to open a sealed jar—can be shrugged off as tough for everyone. But it’s the everyday tasks, like brushing your teeth or stirring a pot on the stove, that can make you say: I can’t believe I can’t do this! “People come in with a list of things they can’t do or hate doing,” says Laura Landmeie, O.T., an occupational therapist at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago. “It’s like their heart and soul have been attacked, too.” Here are 13 such challenges—plus tips for how to deal.

lock and key
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You can’t turn a key in a lock.

OK, tight jars are one thing, but struggling to turn a doorknob, a lamp switch, or even your house key? Simple slip-on key covers may be just enough to make the task easier, advises Landmeier. If not, try a key holder, which increases leverage and lets you use more comfortable gripping positions. For doorknobs, spend a few bucks on doorknob grips, or replace your knobs with lever door handles. For a lamp switch, try an adaptive lamp-switch knob. Or, upgrade to a touch lamp, or even splurge on smart lighting: “Alexa, turn on the lights!”

pulling up socks
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You can no longer bend over to pull up your socks.

When getting dressed, you might expect buttons to be tricky. And, RA or not, who doesn’t struggle with a stuck zipper? But some with RA are surprised to find that knee or hip pain prevents them from reaching down to pull on their socks, or even pull up their pants. A reacher tool can help you put on your pants without bending over or raising your legs, says Landmeier. For an extra assist with your socks, she suggests trying a terry cloth sock aid—you may not have to pinch it as tightly as you would with a hard, plastic version of the tool.

high heels
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You can’t wear your favorite shoes.

A month after Carla Kienast was diagnosed with RA, she had to give up her beloved 3-inch heels (which can impair balance and may aggravate joint pain, research shows). The real shock? How hard it was to let go. “I wore high heels forever,” says Kienast, a former corporate communications professional in Dallas, TX, who has lived with RA for 12 years. These days, she sports cool walking sneakers. They inspire her to stay active, helping her feel good physically and mentally. “It was hard to let go of who I was. But I’m embracing who I am.”

shower
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You can’t stand for the time it takes to shower.

When you have knee RA, standing still for extended periods—even the relatively short amount of time it takes to shower—can put stress on your knees. Using a small shower chair can help relieve your knees, says Landmeier. Look for a sturdy, plastic chair like this one from Carex ($38.95). And, if shoulder RA affects your reach, also pick up a long-handle shower brush—those with a curve give you a bit of extra range, she adds.

electric toothbrush
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You struggle to brush your teeth.

Believe it or not, even gripping and maneuvering a toothbrush can be difficult for those with RA, says Victoria Ruffing, R.N., director of nursing and patient education at the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center in Baltimore. Foam tubing can make the handle thicker and easier to grip. Or, for the dirt-cheap fix, simply pick up a small piece of pre-slit foam pipe insulation from the hardware store—and slip it on the toothbrush handle, suggests Ruffing. (You can slip it over pens and eating utensils, too.) Another solution: Invest in an electric toothbrush—the handle is chunkier, and because it vibrates you don’t have to maneuver as much.

cutting board
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It actually hurts to use a cutting board.

You read that right. Some with RA are surprised to notice their hand, shoulder, elbow, or wrist aching after chopping veggies for dinner. The type of cutting board you use may be the culprit, says Landmeier. “If you have a cutting board that’s moving around, you have to put more force down to hold the cutting board still,” she explains. That extra force can aggravate RA. Try swapping the board for one that suctions to the countertop, she says.

stirring food
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You can’t stir while you’re cooking.

When you’re mixing or stirring something on the stovetop, RA that causes hand weakness can make it hard to grip the spoon—which can spoil not only your dinner but also your mood. Try holding the spoon handle with a “grasp,” not a pinch, advises Landmeier. Your thumb should point up, not down, she adds. This alternative grip still lets you work but puts a lot less stress on your hand. Plus, because you’re not raising your arm as much, this position also helps alleviate shoulder pain.

clipping fingernails
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You can’t clip your fingernails.

Ever think about how much force it takes to clip your nails? If you have hand RA, you probably have. For folks with RA who struggle to pinch the clippers, try using larger, easier to hold and control toenail clippers for your fingernails, says Landmeier. The longer lever makes it less taxing to use. (It’s physics!) Wrapping a little bandaging tape around the metal makes it easier to grip, too, she adds. Or, invest in some nice ergonomic nail clippers.

putting on coat
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You can’t put on your coat.

You probably never noticed how you put on your coat—until RA affected your shoulder. If you’re like most people, you reach your arm up into the coat’s sleeve. However, “if that shoulder is painful, swollen, or weak, it’s harder to [do],” says Landmeier. Try this: First, slide the arm with the more painful shoulder down into its sleeve. Then, walk your fingers around the coat’s collar to bring the other sleeve to your other shoulder. Slip that arm down into its sleeve. Or, put your coat on the back of a chair, sit, and slide your arms in the sleeves.

gallon of milk
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You drop the milk.

Feeling a little clumsy lately? People with RA often complain of objects slipping out of their hands, possibly due to reduced grip function. “Or you feel like you are going to drop them,” says Ruffing. So “grip and lift” tasks—like picking up a gallon of milk or a jug of laundry detergent—suddenly feel iffy. Buy goods in smaller containers. Or have someone help you pour the liquid into smaller, lightweight containers, suggests Landmeier. Look for plastic pitchers with rounded handles that are comfortable to hold—such as this Rubbermaid pitcher, she says.

home office
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Your home office…hurts.

Many of us are working remotely lately, and home work stations can be especially hard on a RA neck, hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. “For some reason, we have our computer set up and we don’t think we can move it,” says Landmeier. But you can! Move your keyboard closer. Sit on a cushion. Or, prop your computer on a couple books. Do what it takes to make sure your elbows are at about 90 degrees while typing, and your eyes are about one-third down from the top of the computer screen (or lower if you wear progressives or bifocals).

fatigue
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You’re so tired you skip the activities you’ve always loved.

RA-related fatigue can be more severe than you’d expect, says Joan Westreich, LCSW-R, social work coordinator of the Early RA Support and Education Program at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Use the “spoon theory”—a metaphor from blogger Christine Miserandino that uses spoons as energy units. You start the day with X-number of spoons, and for each task take a spoon away. “If you only have one spoon left and you want to use it to watch TV or movies with your family, you may have to skip the laundry,” says Westreich.

urgent on phone
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You have to ask for help more often.

Asking for help can be difficult, especially if you’re used to being the caretaker. “Often, help is available—but people don’t access it because of guilt or shame,” Westreich says. Think about who you can reach out to, she recommends. Include family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Then, after you make the ask, take a moment to assess how it went. Zero in on the most willing and available people—then, add them to your “support team.” Keep in mind: It might not be the people closest to you, Westreich notes. You might be surprised how generous acquaintances can be.

Jerilyn Covert
Meet Our Writer
Jerilyn Covert

Jerilyn Covert is a writer, editor, and copy editor with 15 years of publishing experience. She’s written hundreds of articles for Men’s Health (where she was an editor for more than 10 years), Women’s Health, Runner’s World, ONE37pm, Whiskey Advocate, Silver Sneakers, and many more. She’s insatiably curious and loves interviewing people who know a lot more than she does. She shares their insights and advice so others can use them to improve their lives.