Sometimes a bubble bath is just what the doctor ordered. In fact, taking a nice hot bath or shower is one of the best ways to treat pain and stiffness from arthritis (the heat can help loosen inflammatory chemicals in your joints that cause arthritis symptoms). But, like so many ordinary activities that get turned upside down by this disease, your arthritis can take showering from comforting to complicated.
“When I first started having symptoms [that were later diagnosed as psoriatic arthritis], one of the biggest surprises for me was how hard showering was,” says Courtney L., 32, of Denver, Colorado. The newlywed says her daily morning showers became a “crucible” for the couple, thanks to all the tasks that required fine motor skills. “All those little caps that needed to be screwed off hurt my hands, lathering my hair was impossible thanks to my shoulder pain, and shaving? I just didn’t. Thankfully I’m blonde so my hair doesn’t show much,” she says.
For the next few months, while they figured out the best treatment plan, Courtney’s husband Ryan had to get in the shower with her to help. “He basically had to wash me head to toe — it’s not as romantic as it sounds,” she says.
“The worst part was when she had to start using this special wash to treat psoriasis rashes,” Ryan says. “It was really sticky, like tar. We would both have to sit down on the floor of our shower to put it on, with her on my lap. It was definitely not something I’d pictured married life being like. Also it smelled really bad.”
Thankfully Courtney’s psoriatic arthritis medications kicked in, allowing her to resume showering independently, and the couple can laugh about it now. But their experience highlights how bathing and showering is no joke for people with arthritis, especially during a flare-up.
We asked occupational and physical therapists and arthritis patients to share their best showering and bathing hacks to help you get clean without causing additional pain or embarrassment.
Adapt Your Shower
1. Sit on a shower chair
The number-one piece of adaptive equipment you should consider adding to your bathing routine is a shower chair, says Lisa Folden, a physical therapist at Healthy PhiT Physical Therapy & Wellness in Charlotte, North Carolina. These waterproof seats can take pressure off achy knees and hips as well as help keep you stable while you scrub, she says. This shower chair by Dr. Maya gets good reviews from arthritis patients for being comfortable, non-slip, and having both a back and arm rests. If space is an issue you can install a wall-mounted shower seat that folds up when not in use.
2. Install a handheld shower head
If it’s hard to position yourself under a regular shower head, using a handheld shower head can really help, says Tom Ryan, a physical therapist who works with arthritis patients at the Panorama Orthopedics Center with locations throughout Colorado. It’s also helpful if you sit down in the shower. This handheld shower head is designed specifically for people with disabilities, with a grippy handle and maneuverable head.
3. Add a non-slip bath mat
Slipping in the shower is dangerous for anyone, but those with arthritis have a greater risk because of balance issues, slower reflexes, and brain fog. This is why a grippy mat placed on the bottom of your bathtub or shower stall is a must, Ryan says. A good non-slip bath mat should cover the entire bottom surface (avoid sets of separate “sticker” types), adhere well to the bottom, and be antimicrobial, he says.
4. Add a grab bar
Getting in and out of the tub and shower can be difficult for some people with arthritis. Installing a grab bar (or two) near the shower door or on the wall nearest to where you exit can improve your safety and comfort, Ryan says. Grab bars work best if they are permanently mounted, rather than use suction that can slip, and have a surface that is easily gripped.
5. Swap out round knobs for ones with flat handles or levers
Large flat handles that simply need to be pushed are much easier for people with arthritis in their hands and wrists to manipulate than the round knobs that either need to be twisted or pulled, Ryan says. You can purchase kits at any home improvement store to change out your shower or bath hardware for under $100.
Get the Right Tools for Your Toiletries
6. Go hands-free
Automatic dispensers aren’t just for soap in public restrooms. “I recommend to all my clients with hand pain to get automatic, hands-free liquid dispensers for not just their soap but also their facial cleansers, body wash, shampoo, and conditioner,” says Linda Roman, a licensed esthetician who specializes in clients with disabilities. “This eliminates having to pick up heavy bottles, twist open caps, or press difficult pumps, especially in the shower where they are extra slippery.” The Simple Human Sensor Pump gets good reviews on Amazon.
7. Use rubber coozies on shampoo bottles
Adding an inexpensive rubber or silicone beer coozy around your shampoo and condition bottles can make them easier to grip and squeeze, says Leslie S., 46, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who has ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis.
8. Swap your loofah for a long-handled bath brush
“Scrubbing my skin feels amazing but holding a slippery sponge is a no go,” Leslie says. Instead she swears by a long-handled exfoliating brush. This extra-long shower brush comes with a wide silicone handle for a more comfortable grip and the soft bristles will get you clean without irritating sensitive skin.
9. Get a towel warmer
Getting shocked with cold air when you exit the shower can be incredibly painful on arthritic joints, Folden says. A heated towel can make the difference between dreading the end of your shower and transitioning easily into the rest of your routine. “It’s not cheap but my heated towel bar is one of the best things I’ve ever bought,” says Steve J., 57, of Houston, Texas, who has osteoarthritis.
Adjust Your Bathing Routine
10. Use a shower cap and dry shampoo
One of Courtney’s favorite tricks is to wash her hair less often. In the shower she wears a waterproof shower cap over her hair while she rinses her body. Then after she’s dried off, she sprays the roots of her hair lightly with dry shampoo. “There’s no reason you need to wash your hair every single day,” she says. “This has saved me so much time and pain.” She uses dry shampoo bottles with a “trigger” as those are easier on her hands than ones with a pump or a nozzle you have to push from the top.
11. Pour in some Epsom salts
“Taking a bath with Epsom salts helps reduce pain and swelling from my osteoarthritis,” says Angie K., 50, of Salt Lake City, Utah. The magnesium in the salts may help relax your muscles and stiff joints.
12. Take your time
Showering used to be a five-minute, in-and-out routine for Angie but since her arthritis has gotten bad, she recognizes how important it is not to rush. The heat and water has such a powerful “loosening up” effect, she recommends making time in your routine for longer showers and baths. You also need to plan extra time because doing things with arthritis just takes more time, and that’s okay, she adds.
13. Consider night showers
Because Angie prefers to take her time, she has moved from quick morning showers to longer evening soaks. “It’s less stressful and helps me get ready for bed,” she says. “I sleep so much better after a hot bath.”
14. Bathe with a buddy nearby
This isn’t an option for everyone, but if your arthritis is severe, having another person present — whether in the shower or tub with you or waiting just outside — may be a good idea. For Courtney that person was her loving husband, but a paid caregiver or medical assistant may also be able to help.
Think Outside the Shower Stall
15. Use a shampoo bowl
Holding your arms above your head to wash your hair can be impossible with shoulder, wrist, or hand pain. A slippery shower floor may add to your difficulties if balance is an issue, Folden says. The solution? Wash your hair outside the shower.
“For clients who have a hard time washing their hair in the shower I recommend using a shampoo bowl that connects to the sink,” she says. “This allows you to sit down and wash and lifting your arms without the force of gravity is much easier.” You can buy an adjustable shampoo bowl that empties into your sink or try a portable, inflatable model if you are more comfortable lying flat on your back.
16. Separate shaving from the shower
“I prefer to shave my legs out of the shower. It’s too tricky with the water and I can’t bend the right ways in such a small space,” Leslie says. Instead, she opts to sit on a towel on the floor with a tub of water and her shaving supplies next to her. Sometimes she props her leg up on an upside down laundry basket so she doesn’t have to crane her neck forward. She also recommends using a small foam gripper tube for a better hold on her razor.
17. Add an after-shower CBD moisturizer
You can lock in soft skin by using a moisturizer right after you shower. Angie swears by using a lotion with cannabidiol, a compound from the cannabis plant that’s not intoxicating like marijuana but may help relieve pain and other arthritis symptoms. She says the CBD oil helps keep her warmed-up joints loose and supple.
18. Put up your feet for 10 minutes
“I love hot showers but I get major swelling in my legs and feet right after I get out,” says Ashley M., 22, of Melbourne, Australia. Her solution? She takes a few minutes post-shower to lie down and elevate her legs before she gets dressed. If the swelling is really bad she’ll add ice packs. “Sometimes it feels silly but if I don’t do it, I’ll be in pain for hours afterward,” she adds.