Cleaning Pots and Pans with Arthritis

Pots and pans with stuck-on gunk may be a particular pain point if you live with arthritis. When grime gets crusted on your cookware, it can take a significant amount of force and stress to scrape it off, which may exacerbate your arthritis pain or even cause injury.

In fact, just gripping a small brush or sponge repeatedly can hurt your joints.

“That tight gripping increases strain and stress on the joints, which could ultimately lead to damage if it happens a lot,” says occupational therapist Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York. “In avoiding that, you protect your joints and also use your available range of motion, which is where you have the most strength and feel the most comfortable.”

While you may already know some general cleaning hacks that make living with arthritis easier, it can be helpful to have go-to cleaning techniques specifically for your pots and pans. Here are eight ways you can make it easier to get sparkling cookware without causing yourself more pain. (Just make sure the tip is appropriate for the type and finish of cookware you’re cleaning.)

1. Use aluminum foil as a scrubber

This trick works for scratch-resistant cookware — but don’t try it with non-stick pans. It allows you to customize the size of your DIY scrubber. Simply crumple up aluminum foil into a ball, add a little soapy water to the pot or pan, and use the aluminum foil ball to easily scrub away any stuck-on residue.

“With aluminum foil, you can make it however big you need to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, instead of using a store-bought sponge that may feel too big or too small,” says Dorsey.

This customized aluminum scrubber helps you avoid unnatural positions or tight grips that exacerbate joint pain and stress.

2. Salt a lemon  

Using an abrasive ingredient like kosher salt can do some of the scrubbing work for you.

Rinse your cookware with hot or boiling water, then add kosher salt and warm water. Use a lemon half to rub the salt and water into the pot or pan, which will loosen up any remaining residue. This works particularly well for copper pots and pans.

“The nice thing about a lemon is that it’s a cupped shape, so it fits comfortably in the natural curve of the hand,” says Dorsey. You can rest your hand on the lemon and move it around using the larger joints in your arm.

3. Soak dishes before cleaning them

You can do this with plain soap and water or with a carbonated liquid like club soda (the effervescence will help dissolve sticky grime).

“Soak your pots and pans immediately after cooking, even if you don’t wash them right away,” says Dorsey. “The sooner and longer you soak them for, the more you’ll decrease the force you need to use to clean them.”

This is important to keep in mind if you take breaks after cooking because your joints ache or you’re tired. You don’t have to clean up right after dinner if you’re starting to feel joint swelling, stiffness, or discomfort, but leaving a pot or pan to soak will save you a lot of trouble when you do clean later on.

“Come back when you feel ready, because you don’t want to push through and ignore the signals you’re getting from your body,” says Dorsey. “That can lead to joint damage, so taking breaks is good.”

4. Consider a dish wand

There are several cleaning tools available in which a sponge is attached to a handle that can be filled with dish soap. This not only lengthens the reach of the sponge so you don’t need to bend over the sink as much (which can be uncomfortable if you have arthritis in your low back, hips, or knees), but it also minimizes the amount of reaching you need to do to grab a bottle of soap.

“You’ll have another six to eight inches or so of reach, and you won’t have to pick up the bottle of soap repeatedly or lift the pot to put it near the soap dispenser,” says Dorsey. “That really helps to minimize extra movements.”

On that note, when you do need to lift pots and pans, try to do so with two hands. This helps distribute the weight and avoids awkward, strained wrist postures that can lead to joint damage.

Aim to slide pots and pans across the counter when possible, and use the right size pot or pan for what you’re making — for instance, if you’re only making pasta for yourself, use a small pot instead of filling a large one with water to minimize the weight you’re handling.

In general, you can follow these joint protection techniques that help you avoid injury when lifting heavy items like pots or pans, per Versus Arthritis, an arthritis charity in the United Kingdom:

  • Use more stable joint positions: Keep your elbows bent and in front of your body to reduce the strain on your shoulder.
  • Avoid gripping tightly: Try to relax your grip or use padding to make the grip on things like a pan handle larger.
  • Use less effort: Reduce the weight of the pot or pan your lifting, or slide it when possible.
  • Spread the load: Use two hands, avoid gripping with your thumbs, and keep as much of your hand in contact with the pot or pan as possible.
  • Use splints and supports: These can help to ease pain and strain in your joints (talk to your physician or a physical therapist to explore options).

5. Look for knobbed scrubbers and rubber gloves

If you want to use a store-bought scrubber for tough grime and grease, look for one that has a rounded knobbed handle. “The knob top fits right in the palm of your hands, and some even can hold soap,” says Dorsey.

It’s also a good idea to wear rubber gloves when you clean. Not only do they add an extra layer of protection if you have trouble feeling when the water is too hot, but they also provide a gripped surface that makes holding pots and pans a little easier.

6. Line your pots and pans

Don’t underestimate how much trouble a simple piece of parchment paper, aluminum foil, or liner can save.

“Lining pots and pans can certainly make clean-up a lot easier,” says Dorsey. “In that case, they may just need a light rinse versus a really hard scrub.”

Strategically place your supplies in your kitchen to avoid unnecessary reaching and bending. For instance, perhaps you always store parchment paper next to your cookie sheets, rather than in a cupboard across the kitchen.

7. Use the dishwasher whenever possible

Even if it’s just for a first cleaning, and you plan to polish off your pots and pans after, let the dishwasher do the work for you as often as possible with dishwasher-safe cookware.

“This way, you can wash several pots and pans at once, and the effort is just in loading and unloading,” says Dorsey.

No matter how you clean your dishes, try your best not to let them stack up. This will help you tackle lighter loads that require less time and strain on your joints. After all, cleaning one or two pans is far more doable than cleaning six.

8. Delegate scrubbing to family members

It’s simple but can be easy to forget: Ask your family members for help. You can still help with dishes without engaging in the tight gripping and twisting that scrubbing typically involves.

“There may be another part of washing dishes that is more comfortable for you to do,” says Dorsey. “Maybe someone else does the actual scrubbing, but you do the rinsing, drying, or loading of the dishwasher.”

If you do partake in rinsing the dishes, it may actually benefit your joints.

“Just running some warm water on your hands or splashing around in it while you’re cleaning might really feel good and may help loosen up the joints or improve pain or discomfort,” says Dorsey.

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Interview with occupational therapist Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York

Joint Care. Versus Arthritis. June 24, 2020.