Do Assistive Devices Help or Hurt with RA?
Last updated: January 2021
This is a question I have pondered on for years and my opinion is that it depends entirely on the purpose of the device and how long you need to use it. I think there is no right or wrong answer to this and my rheumatologist agrees. Each scenario is unique and each patient brings their own unique circumstances to the decision.
What I am sharing here is my own perspective after 24 years with RA and countless times I have used devices during, after, and beyond surgeries, injuries, or flares.
When assistive devices are beneficial
For instance, I used a scooter with a resting place for my knee and my foot extended out over the back when I had my two feet surgeries. I could not have survived 6 weeks of crutches as my shoulder and wrists would have been in a perpetual flare. With the use of this scooter, I was able to get around my home and office with ease.
Another time with a broken foot, I made use of ergonomic forearm crutches, and again, this prevented flaring.
Assistive devices that aggravate my RA
The take away from this is that we often get recommendations to use certain devices, like crutches, without the person suggesting their use having any awareness or understanding of the impact it might have on our RA. Another time, a full leg brace was suggested and it threw my hip into a terrible flare.
I quickly determined that a shorter, less hip-altering brace would work just as well, minus the flare. I asked the physician if I could switch and, after doing so, my hips were fine. It surprises me how often devices are suggested with little or no thought to what it may mean to those of us with RA.
Device functioning and limitations
This even goes for neoprene sleeves, joint braces, compression gloves and socks, wrists guards, etc. I find that if I use them, I need to be aware of what that means to my functioning.
So, if I am using a wrist guard, for instance, is it causing any kind of numbness in my fingers? How long should I wear it? Should I sleep with it on? These are all questions that need to be answered by medical personnel who have experience with these topics.
There is a case of too long as well. I recall when I had a painful flare in my elbows, I wore a compression sleeve to relieve the pain and pressure. It worked...to a degree. The issue became that, after a while, it actually made the discomfort worse and if I wore it too long, I actually had weakness in my elbow and numbness in my fingers afterward.
Start with recommendations from your healthcare team
How long is too long? Well, that is the million-dollar question. I think for me how I handle this now is to start with a minimal amount of time as suggested and endorsed by my rheumatologist and then, if need be, gradually increase. But always, always, do it with the guidance of your physician and medical care team.
As with any assistive devices or products that can give us relief, we must be aware of the guidelines for use. Being award of the hazards of misusing them is just as important for those of us managing RA.
Did you know rheumatologist Dr. Donica Baker is answering community questions?
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