Finding the Best Chair for Arthritis

We spend a great part of our lives sitting in chairs. Many of us work at a job that requires us to sit all day, whether we are typing at a computer, answering a telephone, or driving a forklift. We sit to eat, drive, watch television, surf the Internet, and read. We often sit while socializing with friends, listening to music, and using many of the electronic devices so prevalent in our lives today. It would make sense, then, for the chairs we sit in to provide comfort and support. But too many of us consign ourselves to chairs that make us uncomfortable and may even be adding to or creating problems in our muscles and joints. What follows is a guide to the finding the best chairs for arthritis and how to select a chair that is right for you.

Finding the best chairs for arthritis: Solutions to an uncomfortable situation

There are a variety of health and lifestyle problems associated with chairs that are not properly supportive. For example, a chair that is too low places undue stress on the joints of the legs, causing pain and stiffness while you’re sitting and making it difficult for you to get out of the chair, especially if your muscles are weak. A chair that is too high will not allow your feet to touch the floor, putting excess stress on the spine and the nerves in the legs and possibly leading to numbness, tingling, and pain.

When you are sitting, the disks in your spine sustain up to twice the amount of stress put on them when you are standing. Increased stress on the spinal disks may lead to poor posture, and this, in turn, can contribute to chronic pain not only in the neck and back but also in the arms and legs. The nerves in your extremities are also affected by poor spinal posture. Pressure on certain nerve areas in the arms and legs can lead to nerve pain or “pins and needles” feelings.

All these problems are made worse by the presence of arthritis in the joints. The stiffness and soreness associated with various forms of arthritis can make sitting in a chair particularly uncomfortable. By helping to support your body, a good chair can help control arthritis pain by promoting good posture and keeping muscles and joints in their natural positions. And if you are more comfortable while sitting, you may find yourself better able to relax and participate in activities with your family and friends.

Factors to consider: Choosing the best chair for your needs

It is important to note that there is no one perfect chair for everyone, as each person has his or her own unique physical attributes. A chair that is perfect for your spouse or best friend may not be perfect for you. A chair that was once perfect for your body may not be perfect anymore if your size or your movement abilities have changed. The way to find the chair that’s right for you is to keep in mind several important factors and then, when you find a likely chair, to try it out for a length of time before you buy it. The following are the factors you need to consider: the seat, the backrest, the armrests, the adjustability features, and the quality of the chair’s construction and materials.

The seat is probably the most important factor to consider when selecting your chair

The seat should be deep enough to support the length of your upper legs while still allowing your back to rest comfortably on the backrest. If the seat is too deep, it may put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the back of your knees, creating circulation and nerve problems. A seat that is too deep can also make getting up very difficult. On the other hand, a seat that is too shallow will not support your legs properly and may lead to poor posture and the problems associated with it.

Choose a seat that has a firm and supportive cushion. A firm seat is much easier to get out of and provides better support for the hips and back. A seat that is too firm, however, can put pressure on bony areas and nerves. Conversely, a seat that is too soft or saggy allows you to sit in ways that may not properly support joints with arthritis and that may also make rising from the chair more difficult.

It is also important that your seat not be too narrow. It should allow plenty of room for you to comfortably change positions in the chair. Sitting still for long periods of time can cause stiffness in the legs and back. To combat this stiffness, your chair should be roomy enough for you to move around and change the position of your joints.

The height of the seat can affect your posture, the support to your joints, and the relative ease or difficulty of sitting down in or standing up from the chair. The chair should be of a height that lets you place your bare feet flat on the floor. Keeping your feet on the floor ensures that your back is properly supported and that you do not develop circulation problems, often felt as “pins and needles,” in your feet and lower legs. Your knees should be at hip height or one to two inches higher than your hips to reduce the load on your low back. But make sure that the chair is not too low. That could make standing up very difficult. The stress and strain of getting out of a low chair can discourage some people from getting up at all, prompting further health problems. In some cases, where a chair is causing great discomfort, a higher chair can make all the difference.

The backrest of a chair used for leisure and relaxation should be high enough to support your entire back, shoulders, neck, and head

It should also be at an angle that is comfortable for you. A backrest that leans too far back does not support the spine properly, allows you to slouch, and makes getting up more difficult. A backrest that leans too far forward, so that your head and neck are thrown forward, places too much stress on the spine and hips. A lumbar support or curve in the lower part of the backrest will promote good overall posture and may reduce pressure on the spine. In any case, the back of the chair should conform to and support the natural shape of your back. (To adapt a chair you already have, use a lumbar support cushion.) The headrest part of the chair back should support the head and neck but not push the head too far forward. A head that leans too far forward may lead to poor posture and can put excess stress on the neck and nerves of the arms and hands.

Good armrests are an often-neglected part of a comfortable chair

Armrests that are set at a proper height can improve your posture and stabilize your position in a chair. By properly supporting your arms, armrests can decrease the muscle load on your neck and shoulders. If the muscles have to support the weight of your arms, the muscles must contract, but if the armrests support the arms instead, the muscles can relax. Armrests can also reduce the pressure on your spine and promote good posture by supporting part of the weight of your upper body.

The armrests should not be so high that the shoulders are hunched toward the ears. In this case, the neck and shoulders will be neither properly supported nor relaxed. If the armrests are too low, however, you will have to bend your upper spine to reach them, resulting in poor posture of the spine, especially in the upper back. Armrests should be of proper length to provide support for wrists and hands, allowing them to rest without strain (although if you use the chair to do work, longer armrests may get in your way). Armrests should never be so long that they extend well beyond the chair’s front legs, because this can cause the chair to become unbalanced when you try to stand up.

Armrests should be padded to prevent pressure on bony areas of the arms and on nerves that are pressure-sensitive. There should be no sharp edges that might put pressure on wrists and elbows, areas with nerves that are especially close to the surface and prone to pressure problems. Padded armrests can also be more comfortable for your arms.

On many chairs, you can adjust the backrest, armrests, or other features

These features can be very helpful in making the chair comfortable and supportive. But it is important to be sure that the knobs or levels used to make adjustments don’t take too much effort. If the knobs or levers are difficult to maneuver, especially if you have arthritis in your hands, they will be of little or no value to you.

Choose a chair that has high-quality construction and components that will hold up over a long period of use

A chair that is comfortable when you purchase it but breaks down after a few months of use can become uncomfortable and painful to your joints. A good quality chair may be more expensive initially, but it can save you money and pain in the long run.

Once you have found the most comfortable and supportive chair for you, these tips that can make getting in and out of it easier and less stressful for your joints

Getting up from a seated position can put as much stress on your knees and hips as going up and down stairs. If you use your arms and hands to assist you, it is important to use them in the most stable and least stressful way. To get up out of your chair, slide forward in the seat and tuck your feet back so that they are slightly behind your knees. This brings your body forward in the chair so you don’t have so far to go to get up. It also bends your knees, so you can use more of your leg strength than if your knees were straighter. Lean forward slightly so your nose is over your knees, bringing your center of gravity forward. Place your hands on the armrests, palms down, to make full use of the strength of your arms. Do not place your weight on your fingers or knuckles; the small joints of your hands cannot take the stress. Push with the strength of your legs and arms to get out of the chair.

Consider a lift chair. Even if you follow the chair selection tips and the tips for getting out of a chair, you may still find it too difficult to get out of your seat

If this is true for you, you may want to consider a lift chair. A lift chair is similar in construction to a regular chair, except that it is equipped with a motorized seat that lifts you up toward a standing position. A lift chair can also help you to sit down by gently lowering you to a seated position. In this way, a lift chair can take stress from your joints, while at the same time making you more independent of others. (If you have Medicare Part B, Medicare may pay some of the cost of a lift chair.)

Selecting the right lift chair requires some planning. Consider the factors discussed in the previous sections on chair selection. All the factors that go into selecting a regular chair apply to lift chairs as well. If you are looking for a lift chair, make sure you get one that is comfortable and functional. You should consider the size and height of the chair in light of your own needs.

Other considerations in selecting a lift chair are your weight and the power source of the chair. Lift chairs have varying weight capacities. Make sure the chair will accommodate your weight. Some lift chairs plug into traditional outlets and others use a battery pack. Some chairs have both capabilities so that they will work in a power outage. Be sure to pay attention to all of the details of the chair so that you are sure it accommodates all of your needs.

Medical supply stores sell lift chairs. So do companies that handle equipment such as scooters for people with limited mobility.

Last but not least: Test the chair before you buy it

An essential part of selecting a chair is to try it before you buy it. It is not a good idea to purchase a chair you have not sat in. You may find that even the most comfortable-looking chair is not right for you. And if you can, try to sit in it for more than just a couple of minutes. You may not know if a chair is supportive and comfortable until you have tried it out for a while.

But the benefits of finding that perfect chair are great. With a chair that is more supportive and comfortable, you may feel less pain and stress in your joints and be more productive during the day. With a chair that is easier to get up and out of, you may be more inclined to participate in activities that don’t require sitting.

Want to learn more about managing everyday activities with arthritis? Read “Sleepless With Arthritis” and “Playing With Children When You Have Chronic Pain.”

Pamela Harrell is the Manager of Rehabilitation Services at Vanderbilt Orthopaedics-Cool Springs in Franklin, Tennessee.

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