Home Design Tips to Reduce Pain

Home is where dreams take shape and lifelong memories are created. As William Shakespeare said, “When I was at home, I was in a better place.” Yet for some people who live with chronic pain, life can be challenging at home. They may find that the layout of their house or apartment can cause additional struggles and painful moments.

A more accessible home can create fewer physical obstacles and make daily living easier. Simple improvements allow individuals to feel more empowered and independent in their own homes. Modifying a home to make it more comfortable is not always easy, but many simple and cost-effective tips can help.

“The changes that make the most difference are usually the simplest,” says Giuli Krug, PhD, OTR/L, director of graduate and clinical education and associate clinical professor in the department of occupational therapy at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

For nearly three decades, Krug has treated countless people with chronic pain and always advises them to simplify their lives. “Use kitchen utensils that are easy to grip, don’t have furniture that is too soft, which is bad for posture, and make sure you pick a good bed for better sleep hygiene,” she says. “These are just a few things that can be done at home to help individuals who suffer from chronic pain.”

Keep it simple

Melanie Harari embraces the mantra “the simpler, the better.” She lives in Los Angeles and has suffered from chronic migraines for the past seven years and vertigo more recently. She has set up her home, which she shares with her husband and two children, so that it’s more convenient for her when she is dealing with an attack.

“When my migraines hit, I have very little energy, and everyday tasks become monumental,” Harari says. “With young kids, though, life doesn’t stop when I’m in pain, so I’ve had to organize my home to require as few decisions as possible.”

Harari has created a home environment that is extremely pared down. She packed up a lot of knickknacks and got rid of a lot of stuff. This means less cleaning and easier maintenance. “My vertigo can make me unsteady at times, too, so it’s good to have fewer things I could bump into or knock over.”

Preventative medications don’t work for her, so she treats each attack as it comes on with medication and ice packs. Harari has a migraine kit that she keeps in a bag on her bedside table. It contains medicine and earplugs, and she places a glass of water next to her bed at night. “I always keep the kit in the same place. I would sometimes lie awake at night with a migraine, trying to summon the energy to go to the bathroom and get my medications and a glass of water. Having them handy means I treat the pain faster.”

Personalized approach

There are changes you can make in your home environment to help you manage and avoid pain, says Penney Cowan, founder and CEO of the American Chronic Pain Association. Cowan, who has lived with pain for more than 40 years, says it’s important to figure out what meets your specific needs.

“Many years ago, my doctors told me not to move, but I realized movement was good for me and that I really liked the exercise from walking up stairs in my two-story home,” she says. “Everyone thinks they need to move to a one-floor home if they have pain issues, but that’s not necessarily the case for all individuals.”

For Gwenn Herman, living on one floor has made a big difference. She and her family moved from the Maryland suburbs to Tucson, Arizona, and bought a one-floor house. At the time, she was using a wheelchair after she was knocked over by a large dog and fractured her knee. The accident left her in a leg brace for weeks and unable to get around for several months. “My husband had to do everything because I wasn’t able to put any weight on my leg,” says Herman, who is the U.S. Pain Foundation’s pain connection clinical director.

Herman’s family installed a ramp leading into the house. The bathroom shower didn’t have a tub, but it did have a step, so they needed a shower chair so she could sit down. “These little things made a huge difference in making things more convenient for me while I was recovering,” she adds.

Basic improvements

Several recommended changes and upgrades are easy and straightforward. Adding grab bars, handrails, and non-slip flooring throughout a house is inexpensive and not difficult. They usually can be installed in an afternoon by a family member or a handyman. Other interior changes could include lowering cabinets and sinks or moving thermostats or light switches to a lower height to make them easier to reach. “There are so many considerations, but based on the type of pain disability, that will dictate each individual’s needs,” says Krug.

For some, stair lifts may be necessary. Other considerations are widening halls and doorways, especially for people who use wheelchairs. The costs for such projects can run the gamut, so it’s important to identify licensed contractors. Talk to your contractor about the project and your budget, and together you can come up with a customized solution for your situation.

Elevators might be an option for some individuals even though they are cost prohibitive for most. Tom Norris of Los Angeles still considers adding an elevator to his 4,000-square-foot home, even though he has gained greater mobility.

He was confined to bed for several years after he was given too much radiation to treat testicular cancer. As his situation and pain got worse, he became dependent on opioids, and Norris and his wife considered moving. “I didn’t want to leave our home because I love it here so much,” he says. “The thought of leaving our home motivated me to get better.”

Norris is now able to get around a bit easier and has enough energy to facilitate four pain support groups through the American Chronic Pain Association in Sacramento, California, and one phone support group through Senior Center Without Walls, affiliated with the Episcopal Senior Communities.

Kitchen & bathroom makeover

The kitchen is considered the heart of most homes and thus should be given special attention for better accessibility. “It’s so important to set up a kitchen for convenience and easy access to kitchen items,” says Krug. “Simple things like automatic can openers and knives and utensils with larger handles so there’s less force on the joints can make the biggest difference.”

Krug adds that shoulder and hip injuries can limit range of motion, so switching to lighter pots, pans, bowls, and other equipment can really help.

Setting up a kitchen that suited her needs was really important to Mary Beth Lewis, who suffers from complex regional pain syndrome. Her condition resulted from a surgery when doctors attempted to bury a nerve that had scar tissue from a previous ankle operation. When the scar tissue was removed, an additional nerve injury occurred. She now lives with a spinal cord stimulator that helps control the pain, but mobility makes the pain flare up, so she uses a wheelchair most of the time.

Lewis, who rents a house in Rockville, Maryland, with her husband and two teenage children, puts regularly used plates and food items in a cabinet that is easy for her to access. “The kitchen cabinets are higher than average in our house, so it is really difficult for me to reach,” she explains. “I can stand a little but use my wheelchair a lot, so we put in lower cabinets where I can get to everything so much better.”

In Norris’s house, the kitchen was already wide enough to move around in his wheelchair. He and his wife added higher chairs and stools that allow him to sit and help prepare meals. “I may not be very mobile, but I still want to participate in life.”

The bathroom can be the most challenging for individuals with chronic pain. Are there grab bars near the shower, tub, toilet, and sink? Some individuals will lower or raise the toilet to make it safer for use. Walk-in tubs, which sometimes fit into existing bath areas, offer a safer bathing experience. For the wheelchair-bound, a roll-in shower allows for easier access but can cost more money to redo.

Exterior modifications

One of the most common improvements is adding a wheelchair ramp to increase access from the outside. Most homes have steps or a threshold to maneuver that could be a hazard. Talk to a contractor to come up with a customized ramp solution to help you get into your home with ease.

Other key exterior modifications include clean, smooth pathways that lead to and from the driveway or sidewalk. Motion-sensing lights are also helpful so you’re never fumbling around for your keys in the dark. Adding handrails is also an inexpensive option for added safety.

Paying for improvements

Financing and rebates are often available for some home projects without going the extra step of securing a home loan. Federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, offer home-improvement grant programs. Most state governments have programs to help people looking to make their homes safe and energy efficient.

If you live in an apartment, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 says that tenants have the right to make reasonable modifications to their apartments, and accessibility modifications are considered reasonable. Also, find out what options are available to you through the National Council on Independent Living, which advocates independent living through home and community-based services. Keep in mind that some home improvements and modifications might be tax deductible, so check with your tax consultant.

A free, comprehensive resource about remodeling homes for full accessibility is available at www.expertise.com/home-and-garden/home-remodeling-for-disability-and-special-needs. It identifies legal and financial resources and offers tips on hiring the right remodeler. It suggests modifications that can be made throughout the home to make the spaces accommodating. The home remodeling guide discusses the federal grants available to seniors, veterans, and disabled people, which can help offset costs.

Want to learn more about managing everyday activities with pain? Read “Working With Pain: 10 Tips” and “Techniques for Improving Sleep.”

Paul Wynn, a writer based in Garrison, New York, has covered health-care trends for the past 20 years.

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