Tips for Bathing Safely with Stiff Joints & Pain

Soaking in the bathtub or taking a shower can be good for both body and soul. Besides the obvious benefit of getting you clean, a bath or shower can help relieve pain and stiffness, reduce your stress levels, and raise your feelings of well-being. Admittedly, the mechanics of a bath or shower are more of a challenge when you’re sore and stiff, have trouble bending, or can’t reach very far. But there are things you can do to make it a whole lot easier and safer, and most of them won’t break the bank. Whether you suffer from stiff, painful joint or are a caregiver helping someone else, read our tips for bathing with joint pain.

Bathing with joint pain: Safety first

First and foremost, keep safety in mind. Falls in the bathroom can be devastating and may add more health problems to any you already have. You can minimize the chance that you’ll fall in the bathroom. For a start, think about the best way for you to get your daily scrubbing. Should you take a tub bath or a shower?

Taking a bath

The warm-water tub bath is clearly a wonderful way to reduce pain and to rest and relax while getting clean in the process. However, as good as a tub bath might feel, if you can’t get in or out of your tub safely, then it’s not for you. There are some steps you can take to make getting into your tub safer. One is to put a rubber-backed bath mat on the bathroom floor to step on as you get in and out of the tub. Another is to put a non-slip rubber mat in the tub bottom. The mat in the tub is especially important if you have an older tub. Non-slip coatings are added to new tubs, but older tubs don’t have them.

You may think that holding on to knobs, spigots, and/or soap dishes when you get in and out of the tub makes you safer. It doesn’t. Holding on to something is a good idea, but these particular items are not designed to hold your weight. Instead, add clamp-on tub rails to the side of the tub. They’ll give you extra support and a safe place to hold when you’re climbing in and out of the tub. Add more rails — often called grab bars — to the wall the tub sits next to. These grab bars come in many sizes and shapes. Don’t buy them until you’ve carefully examined your tub area and thought about your personal needs as well. Grab bars should be permanently attached to the wall, at a convenient height and location for you, and may need professional installation. You might also consider placing a grab bar on the wall outside the tub. You can hold on to the bar when you are getting in and out.

A detail — make sure you test the temperature of the water before you get in. Not only will this save you from scalding yourself, it’ll take away the risk that you’ll fall as you try to get away from water that is too hot for you.

Taking a shower

A shower, especially one taken in a shower stall, works better than a tub bath for many people. The best shower stall has little to no lip or edge at the entrance and includes a built-in shower bench. However, most showers are still part of a tub. If you use a tub shower, non-slip mats outside and inside the tub, grab bars, and an adjustable shower bench or chair will make taking a shower safer. Shower benches and chairs take pressure off the joints and help with balance. They are especially helpful if you can’t stand for long periods of time, are unsteady on your feet, or just want to sit and relax for a time in your shower. Benches come with or without backs, and you will need to measure the width of your tub before purchasing a bench to make sure it fits. Some benches are extra large and come with extensions so you can sit on the bench outside the tub and then move yourself across the side of the tub. These kinds of benches are called transfer benches. You can adjust the seat of most shower benches and chairs to make it the right height for you to get on and off easily. A sturdy, old, wooden chair can work just as well as a shower chair, but make sure that it sits on a non-slip mat or that its feet are covered with rubber feet/stoppers.

If you use a shower stall and it doesn’t have a built-in bench, you can put in a shower chair or attach a fold-up bench to the wall. Fold the bench up against the wall when you’re not using it, and fold it down when you want to sit.

Make bathing with arthritis pain easier

When you add a safety feature such as a tub rail, you also make bathing/showering easier. Here are some additional steps you can take.

  • Buy a dispenser that attaches to the shower wall with two-sided tape. You can fill the dispenser units with soap, conditioner, shampoo, or other needed items. One push of a button puts your item of choice easily into your hand — no more bending to pick up slippery soap or a dropped shampoo bottle.
  • Use liquid soap or gel even if you don’t have a dispenser. Some people with arthritis recommend this because they find liquid soap and gels easier to use.
  • Use a long-handled sponge to help you reach those hard-to-get-to places. Some of these sponges come with a pocket for a small bar of soap.
  • Buy a wash mitt if you find it too painful to hold onto the washcloth. Or make a mitt, using a washcloth and Velcro to keep the mitt on your wrist as you use it.
  • Try a handheld showerhead. Some people prefer these, because it lets them keep water away from head and hair, and it makes it easier to wash hard-to-reach places. Many of these showerheads can also function as normal overhead showers.
  • If you are lucky enough to be able to continue to use the tub, buy a soaker pillow to provide a comfortable resting place for your head.
  • Put on a thick terry-cloth robe when you get out of the tub or shower. Because terry cloth soaks up water, you can pat yourself dry.

Many of the items I’ve discussed so far are considered self-help aids or assistive devices. Look for them in catalogs, surgical supply stores, or on the Internet (see Where to Find Helpful Products). Though most of the items are not covered by health insurance, it is always wise to call your insurance carrier and check. If you itemize on Schedule A when you do your income tax return, you may be able to claim at least part of the cost of some of the items I discuss in this article as medical expense tax deductions. To qualify, an item must be medically necessary and a permanent improvement to your home.

Spending more on items to make bathing with arthritis easier

For people looking to invest funds into more expensive items that make bathing safer and/or easier, there are a number to investigate.

  • Walk-in tubs live up to their name. You simply open a door into the tub, walk into the tub, sit down on a comfortable seat, close the tub door, and fill the tub with water up to shoulder height.
  • Bath lifts do for you much of the work of getting into and sitting down in the tub. The bath lifts I have in mind are portable and can be put in the tub and taken out whenever you want. One type of lift uses water power. You sit on the seat, and once you operate the control button, the lift uses the pressure of water from the faucet to lower the seat into the water. Once your bath is complete, you get out of the tub by reversing the process. The model with a swivel seat that swings over the tub’s edge is particularly easy to use. Another type of lift uses battery power to lower and raise the chair in the tub.
  • Accessible showers don’t have an edge to keep the water in, so there’s nothing you have to step over. The water is contained by means of a downward slope of the floor. If the shower doesn’t have a built-in bench, you can attach a folding bench to the wall.

Safety, self-care for peace of mind

If your chance of falling is great, look into getting a “call for help” button. When you push the button, the device notifies someone that you have fallen so you can get help. You can wear the button around your neck and hang it close to the shower or tub while you’re bathing. These communication devices are not cumbersome, and you can find out where to get one through the social services or home care department at your local hospital.

If you are having difficulty with the mechanics of bathing, an occupational therapist can help assess your needs and offer additional suggestions, including the best ways for you to get into and out of a tub. Ask your doctor for a name, or contact your local hospital’s social services department.

Many people with arthritis take their morning medicine and then follow up with a shower or bath before doing their stretching exercises. Others use a tub bath or shower as a way to reduce pain later in the day. Although the effort of taking a bath or shower sometimes seems overwhelming, the good feelings you get from taking good care of yourself should outweigh the bad.

Want to learn more about managing everyday activities with chronic pain? Read “Home Design Tips to Reduce Pain” and “Working With Pain: 10 Tips.”

Wendy McBrair spent 30 years as a health-care professional in the fields of rheumatology and orthopedics, where she specialized in patient and community service, patient education, and advocacy.

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