Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

Whether you live with arthritis or another rheumatic disease, you know all too well that the simple act of putting on clothes can quicky turn into a frustrating task. Getting dressed when you have arthritis means you may be dealing with pain, swelling, stiffness, restricted range of motion, joint deformities, and weakness. It’s no wonder this everyday task can feel like a grating chore that wears on you physically and emotionally.

Getting dressed requires finger strength and dexterity, which can be difficult for someone who has arthritis in the small hand joints. It also involves balance and maneuvering of the body, which can challenge those with arthritis in the larger joints like the knees and hips, explains James Gallegro, PT, DScPT, a physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

“Being unable to perform simple dressing tasks can remind people what their disability has taken from them, and even make them question their identity,” says occupational therapist Cheryl Crow, MOT, OTR/L, and founder of Arthritis Life, who has rheumatoid arthritis. “Someone who prides themself on being self-reliant and independent may feel extremely threatened by not being able to put on their shoes or button up a shirt independently.”

On some days, CreakyJoints member Susan M. feels like crawling back into bed after getting dressed. “It’s exhausting,” she shared on Facebook. And she’s far from alone in her feelings. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, 44 percent of the 78 million adults in the U.S. diagnosed with arthritis say they face daily activity limitations, including getting dressed.

But it doesn’t have to be a struggle or, at least, not as big of a struggle. With these tips from occupational and physical therapists, getting dressed with arthritis is about to become a whole lot easier.

Choose loose-fitting clothing

Chances are, your “pandemic wardrobe” has been kinder to your arthritis. Crow says her number-one tip is to select clothing that’s easy to put on and off. “Loose, stretchy clothing without many fasteners tends to be easier than tight clothing that has many small zippers and hooks,” she says.

Gallegro agrees, adding that the fine motor skills required to manipulate buttons, zippers, or hooks can become very frustrating with finger and hand arthritis.

So next time you shop for clothes, think pull-on tops and tunics instead of button-down blouses, zip-up sweatshirts, and tight-fitted turtlenecks, and consider joggers and pants with drawstring waists instead of skinny jeans and fitted slacks.

Opt for soft, stretchy fabric

In addition to how an item of clothing fits, its fabric is also an important consideration when dressing with arthritis. In general, you’re going to have a harder time with stiffer or tighter clothing that’s tough to pull up over or slide your legs and arms through, says Gallegro.

“There are a lot of stretchy fabrics that look pretty good; it’s not the old days where it’s either spandex or cotton,” he adds.

Avoid items with back closures

Trying to finagle back zippers or buttons is a challenge for anyone. But the mobility required for this is especially taxing for people with arthritis. Stick to items with front closures for an easier time. For women, this may mean investing in different bras if your current underwear selection includes bras that have mostly back closures. Read more here about how to shop for a bra with arthritis.

Take advantage of dressing aids

“There is no shame in using devices that make your life easier,” says Gallegro. “It takes initiative to manage your condition and get the help you need to cut off the frustration on top of the pain and stiffness.”

Luckily, there are a ton of assistive products — both tried-and-true and brand-new — available to help people with arthritis get dressed more easily. In addition to doing a quick Google search or scrolling Amazon, Gallegro suggests checking medical supply websites to uncover even more helpful gadgets and dressing aids that may be covered by your insurance.

Here are a few dressing aids to consider:

  • Button hooks: These little helpers can wrap around buttons and allow you to thread them without using a pincer grasp with your pointer finger and thumb, Crow says.
  • Sock aid: This device opens the end of the sock so you can put your foot into it and pull your sock up on your leg without having to bend down and use finger dexterity and hand strength, says Gallegro.
  • Shoehorn: CreakyJoints member Donna W. says she can’t live without her shoehorn to help put her shoes on and take them off. “I have several long ones at the house and always carry one in my purse,” she wrote on Facebook.
  • Zipper pull: These handy devices can be added to a zipper to allow you to “hook” your fingers through the opening and pull down using large arm muscles rather than tiny finger muscles, says Crow.

Make smart swaps

When it comes to getting dressed with arthritis, Crow and Gallegro say a few smart wardrobe swaps can result in simpler ways of dressing. Here are a few of their favorites.

  • Belts with one-handed closures: If you can’t buckle your belt on your own, belts with one-handed closures might be a good option.
  • Elastic laces: “You can lace up the shoe, or have someone else do it for you, and then you never have to untie them again,” Gallegro says. “At one time, they only came in hospital-looking white, but now they come in all sorts of colors.”
  • Front-closure bras: “Many people find that a bra with a front closure is easier to put on than one that secures in the back,” says Crow, who also recommends trying a sports bra-style that just pulls on.
  • Magnetic button covers: Instead of relegating your favorite button-down to the back of the closet, you can use button covers to convert hard-to-secure shirt buttons into magnetic closures.
  • Slip-on or Velcro shoes: Slip-on shoes with elastic inserts or shoes with Velcro closings or zipper fastenings eliminate issues with tying on those days your fingers just won’t work.

Stay seated for better balance

Safety is key, so you want to put yourself in a position where you can maintain your balance and move with purpose.

Gallegro recommends sitting down when you put on your pants and your shoes. “It might take a little extra time,” he says, “but you’ll have success in a much more organized way instead of feeling like you are losing your balance when you put your leg in your pants or stumbling because you couldn’t get your shoe on.” If you have room, keep a bench or chair in or near your closet or dresser to make it easier to sit while you get dressed.

Start with your sore side

If you have upper extremity arthritis in one shoulder, make sure to put the problem arm in your shirt first. Gallegro says this simple solution will prevent you from having to re-find yourself and position your body in an awkward angle.

If you have a type of inflammatory arthritis that’s causing pain in multiple joints, like rheumatoid arthritis, this tip might not apply, he adds, unless you’re having a flare in one large joint on one side.

Allocate enough time

When you have arthritis, everything can become slower and more laborious. Allocating enough time to get dressed can prevent the added frustration that can result from feeling rushed.

“If you know that you have to put a button-down shirt on for a job interview or special occasion, and you usually don’t do that, give yourself that extra 10 minutes to make sure you’re using the tools and not setting yourself up for frustration,” says Gallegro.

Lay your clothes out at night

Whenever possible, plan your outfit the night before. The less time you spend thinking about your clothes in the morning, the more time you have to warm up your joints and get dressed without pain or added stress.

Wake up and warm up

Morning stiffness is a common and prominent symptom in many types of arthritis. Swelling and immobility overnight can cause pain and stiffness in your joints upon awaking. If you can adjust your morning routine, try getting up a little earlier to give yourself time to stretch and move before you have to start getting dressed or doing other tasks that can be affected by joint pain, like doing hair or makeup or making breakfast.

“Most stiff joint conditions do better after you start moving for a half hour or so in the morning,” says Gallegro, who adds that you should try to set an earlier alarm when possible. “You’ll be able to maneuver your legs and hands better if you’re not hopping out of bed, getting into your clothes, and running out the door.”

Get yourself moving by doing some stretches in bed or going for a short morning walk. Even relaxing your joints in a hot shower or bath can help do the trick.

Prepare for flare days

If you have a waxing and waning type of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause periods of flare-ups of more severe symptoms, be prepared with options in your wardrobe for those days when your ankles are swollen or your fingers aren’t functioning as well.

“If a flare is coming on, it would be nice to have a couple of pair of wider shoes or pants that are a little easier to slide into,” says Gallegro.

Ask for help

Despite the many aids, devices, and strategies for getting dressed with arthritis, there will be times when you just need a hand. Let your family help you — but define what that help looks like so you feel like you’re in control.

For example, if you know you won’t be able to clasp your necklace, plan for it. “Don’t bother trying to struggle with it, get frustrated, and then have a confrontation because your family member didn’t help you,” says Gallegro. “Just say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be able to get that stubborn old necklace on, so I’d love your help if you have five minutes before we leave.’”

Be a More Proactive Patient with ArthritisPower

Join CreakyJoints’ patient-centered research registry to track your symptoms, disease activity, and medications — and share with your doctor. Learn more and sign up here.

Disabilities and Limitations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 27, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/disabilities-limitations.htm.

Interview with Cheryl Crow, MOT, OTR/L, occupational therapist and founder of Arthritis Life

Interview with James Gallegro, PT, DScPT, physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

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