Bending, crouching, lifting, scrubbing, reaching — to say that cleaning with arthritis is a painful and taxing task is putting it mildly. In fact, a 2015 study that surveyed rheumatoid arthritis patients found that the majority of participants — 84.6 percent, to be precise — reported difficulty performing household chores. Additionally, more than half of those surveyed said they receive assistance to keep their home neat and tidy.
When you consider the symptoms that accompany arthritis, it makes sense. “Pain and swelling in the joints can limit a person’s range of motion, making certain positions difficult or painful,” says Alexis DiClemente, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And there are a number of positions required for cleaning that are a struggle for anyone, let alone someone with arthritis.
If you have arthritis in the knees or hips, for example, cleaning tasks that involve kneeling, bending, and crouching might be painful. Similarly, overhead reaching, repetitive scrubbing, and lifting can challenge someone with arthritis in the shoulders, wrists, and hands, says DiClemente. Chores like vacuuming and mopping can aggravate arthritis in the back.
“If someone is already experiencing arthritis pain in their day-to-day life, cleaning with arthritis can be very overwhelming, especially since it may cause the person to feel more pain and fatigue afterward,” DiClemente says. “Persistent pain and fatigue can impact a person’s quality of life, as well as their emotional well-being.”
But while cleaning will always be, well, a chore, there are ways to make it less difficult or discouraging. These practical solutions can help you or someone you love find better ways to clean with arthritis, “at your own pace, choosing which tasks to do and when,” says DiClemente.
Plan and self-pace
When it comes to cleaning with arthritis, occupational therapist Carol Dodge, OTRL, CHT, says planning and self-pacing can help you get the job done without overtaxing the body. “Planning, self-pacing, and breaking up tasks throughout the week is the name of the game for me when it comes to tackling cleaning projects,” agrees CreakyJoints Psoriatic Arthritis Patient Council member Jaime H.
Dodge suggests spreading chores throughout the week and scheduling the most difficult tasks for the time of the day you feel your best. If mornings are tough for you (many people with arthritis experience joint stiffness that is worse in the morning), you may want to just throw in a small load of laundry or empty the top rack of the dishwasher, saving more labor-intensive chores like vacuuming or cleaning the bathroom for later in the day after you get moving and your muscles have time to warm up, she notes.
Be sure to set limits on how much you do in one day, Dodge adds, especially so you don’t exhaust yourself on those days when you feel good and have a tendency to overdo. Many CreakyJoints members have shared that doing too much on “good days” can backfire and lead to worsened pain and fatigue for days to come.
Invest in arthritis-friendly cleaning tools
Fortunately, there are many arthritis-friendly gadgets and tools on the market that help people living with arthritis pain and allow them to remain independent by making everyday tasks less challenging, says DiClemente, including:
- Long-handed dustpans and brooms so you can sweep without having to bend over
- Duster with extendable handle to clean blinds, baseboards, and fans
- A long-handled scrub brush to clean the shower/tub and windows
- Self-propelled or robot vacuum
- Steam mop to loosen the dirt so it’s easier to sweep
- Nylon or terrycloth bath mitt to use your entire arm instead of small hand joints
- A small stepstool to easily access high cabinets and shelves or to sit when cleaning surfaces close to the ground
- A rolling laundry basket to transport laundry
- A thick kneeling pad to provide comfort when you have to kneel
Relying on these tools will ensure you have “less pain, more of the time,” says Dodge. Plus, when you find a tool that lets you do a task more easily and more independently, you’re more likely to do the activity and avoid losing muscle mass, she adds.
Double-up on supplies
If your home has two or more floors, do your best to keep a set of cleanings supplies on each floor. This way, you don’t have to carry heavy bottles of detergents, mops, and vacuums up and down the stairs, says Dodge, who keeps disinfectant wipes in every bathroom to do a daily wipe-down. This helps avoid build-up that requires scrubbing.
Carrying heavy bottles of detergent, bulky vacuums, and overflowing laundry baskets is simply not good for your joints and can easily lead to a slip and fall. Both Dodge and DiClemente recommended the following smart swaps:
- Use detergent pods or smaller containers instead of large detergent containers.
- Transfer liquid detergents into smaller, more manageable bottles.
- Divide up laundry so there is not a large load of heavy items.
- Switch to lighter-weight pots, pans, and dishes.
Let cleaning solutions do the work for you
Intense scrubbing sessions may leave your shower bright, but they can also leave your joints in serious pain. “Remaining in one position for several minutes at a time can cause joints to become stiff and painful,” says DiClemente, noting that joints get their nutrition from joint fluid that lubricates the joint during movement.
To avoid these intense cleaning sessions, Dodge uses spray-on foam cleaners to loosen the dirt and prep the area so it’s easier to gently wipe away. For the toilet, she recommends automatic toilet bowel cleaners so you don’t have to bend down and scrub off stains.
Break up big tasks
Jaime H. says she often takes along break — anywhere from a few hours to an entire day — between tasks like mopping or vacuuming multiple rooms. “I usually can’t get away with doing more than one room at a time without having severe back pain,” she says.
Unless you have help, it’s likely unrealistic to clean your entire living space in one day. Instead, clean a little bit each day when the messes are fresh. Consider vacuuming one room or cleaning a small section of the kitchen — not both in one day — to prevent flare-ups and manage fatigue. You can also limit laundry-related by pain by tossing in a small load of clothing or towels every other day instead of spending your entire Saturday by the washer and dryer.
“Doing too much at once will overload the joints and increase pain, swelling, and stiffness, potentially exacerbating symptoms for several days,” says DiClemente.
Rely on big muscles
Dodge often talks to her clients about “joint protective” techniques that can make cleaning easier, including relying on big muscles instead of small joints to clean and dust. For example, she recommends using a nylon or terrycloth mitt (or old socks on your hands) instead of a dust cloth so you utilize your entire arm and shoulder rather than just your hand strength to grip a dust cloth.
Similarly, DiClemente recommends using proper body mechanics for lifting and bending: “Bend the knees and hinge at the hips instead of rounding your back, which can put adverse strain through the spine,” she says.
Enlist family support
Cleaning the house should not be a solo act, especially if you live with family members or roommates. Work with your loved ones to divide some of the chores, delegating some of the tasks that are most burdensome for you. For example, ask your spouse to carry the laundry up and down the stairs or your grandchild to help unload the dishwasher.
“I’ve tried to write a cleaning schedule down for my family to follow,” says Jaime, though she admits that it doesn’t always work. But her family members know which tasks are more strenuous for her, and are always willing to take those on. “My husband, much to his credit, will usually take over vacuum duties for me,” she says.
Give yourself a break
Do your best to avoid pushing yourself too much in pursuit of perfection. “There can be a sense of guilt when a person is unable to maintain their home the way they used to [prior to having arthritis],” says DiClemente. “Remember that it is okay to take breaks, reschedule cleaning tasks for a day when pain is less, and ask for help. Be kind to your body and try not to get upset if everything isn’t perfect.”
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Interview with Alexis DiClemente, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City
Interview with Carol Dodge, OTRL, CHT, occupational therapist University of Michigan, Michigan Medicine
Interview with Jaime H., CreakyJoints Psoriatic Arthritis Patient Council member
Leino M, et al. Effects of rheumatoid arthritis on household chores and leisure-time activities. Rheumatology International. November 2015. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00296-015-3313-2.