7 Things To Never Say To Someone With Arthritis
Let’s be honest: living with arthritis is hard. There are many ways you can manage, reduce and alleviate your symptoms, but at the end of the day it is a chronic pain condition and, depending on your individual experience and symptoms, it can be debilitating.
Like many invisible conditions, many people who don’t have arthritis don’t always know what to say to someone living with the condition. They may inadvertently spread myths and misconceptions which can be frustrating to hear, or cause you to feel disempowered or patronised. Reaching out and telling someone about a new diagnosis or about a struggle you’ve been having can be a really brave and vulnerable thing to do, and it can be hurtful if that person responds in a way that feels rude or naive instead of giving you the validation and respect you deserve.
If you know someone with arthritis and want to learn more about what not to say to them if they open up to you about their condition, or if you have arthritis and want people to understand how their words have an impact, then read on and share with your friends. This is our list of 7 things never to say to someone who has arthritis.
1. "“You’re too young to have arthritis”
It’s true that osteoarthritis is more likely to develop when you get older, but some people develop it at a younger age. There are also other types of arthritis that affect younger people and even children.
“Arthritis doesn’t just affect older people,” says Dr Wendy Holden, Arthritis Action’s Medical Advisor and Honorary Consultant Rheumatologist. “Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the UK and can affect people of all ages, not just older people. Osteoarthritis is more common as we get older but rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of so-called inflammatory arthritis can start at any age including in babies. Some types of arthritis can affect much younger people, including children and even babies. This type of arthritis is called juvenile inflammatory arthritis and is a problem to do with the immune system attacking the joints. Juvenile inflammatory arthritis can cause swelling, pain and stiffness.”
2. “Everyone gets arthritis when they’re older”
Arthritis is fairly common, but it’s not an inevitable part of ageing. It’s important to know this, so that you can help mitigate some of the risks of developing arthritis and also so you understand that just because you feel a little stiff or sore - especially after exercise - it doesn’t necessarily mean you do have arthritis.
“Arthritis isn’t inevitable as you get older,” says Dr Wendy. “There are thought to be over 10 million people with arthritis in the UK. However, arthritis is not inevitable for everybody. Keeping to a healthy weight, staying active, stopping smoking and limiting alcohol intake can help reduce the risk, however there are other risk factors for arthritis, such as family history, gender and joint injury.”
3. “But you’ve got arthritis, how are you working out?”
Arthritis can make it harder to be active, especially during a flare up. Exercise is, however, absolutely crucial for someone with arthritis to engage with regularly as it helps strengthen the muscles and joints, which can actually reduce pain over time. Having arthritis doesn’t mean you can’t exercise or that it’s bad for you, and rather than telling someone what you believe their limits are, it's best to encourage them in what they want to do. Why not suggest going for a short walk, often things like a bit of exercise can be much more appealing if you are doing it with someone.
“Exercise isn’t bad for someone with arthritis,” says Dr Wendy. “It is normal to sometimes feel a little sore or uncomfortable after exercise, especially if it is something you haven’t done for a while - but it is important to remember that this does not mean that you are harming your joints. Osteoarthritis is not caused by too much exercise, and hard work does not damage the joints. Inactivity leads to muscle weakness and joint instability that will worsen joint pain. In fact, people with arthritis should continue exercising as much as possible. Regular exercise is essential as it helps to strengthen the muscles that protect and support the joints. Keeping active has even been proven to help reduce the pain of arthritis and improve function.”
4. “Have you tried…”
It’s natural to want to help people, and our first response when someone tells us something we perceive to be a problem is to give them advice and help them come up with a solution. The problem is that this often isn’t what people want or need. If you don’t have arthritis and you’re implying to someone who may have lived with the condition that you know more about it than them, or that they clearly don’t know enough about their own condition, it can feel pretty disrespectful and annoying - plus the advice could actually be harmful if you don’t understand arthritis very well. If someone has arthritis, chances are they’ve tried many things and know or are in the process of figuring out what works for them. If someone asks you for advice then feel free to give it, but otherwise focus on listening, supporting and understanding. Ask them what they have tried and if they saw any benefit before offering other suggestions. It’s important to listen rather than lecture as you do not know the position they are in.
5. “But you could do that last week, you’re just making excuses”
When you’re living with arthritis, not every day is the same. Some days you may feel energetic and fairly comfortable in your body and be able to do lots of things, and then another day you may be in a lot of pain and have to take it easy. Chronic illness is often up and down and there are good days and bad days. Making someone feel bad for not having a good day every day is just going to make them feel worse. Instead, have some compassion, maybe offer some support if it’s desired and be open to adjusting plans to accommodate everyone’s current abilities.
6. “Just think positively: being negative is making it worse”
It’s true that your mind is very powerful and changing your mindset can do wonders for your life. However, being allowed to express your individual truth and be congruent with yourself and others is also super important. No amount of positive thinking or affirmations will change the fact that someone may be in very real pain which is having a massive impact on their life. If someone reaches out to you and wants to talk to you about their experience, they probably just want you to listen and be there for them - not make them feel worse by saying all their problems would be solved if they just ‘thought more positively’. If you feel that someone you know living with arthritis has become more negative or they are struggling with their mental health in any way, a trained therapist can help teach tools to manage and process. For some people this can be a daunting step so offer to help, some therapists will even allow a friend to come in as a first step.
7. “I know someone with arthritis and they can do X, so why can’t you?”
No two people are the same, and no two cases of arthritis are the same either. There are different levels of arthritis which specify how much cartilage has been damaged, and this can make a massive difference in terms of how the arthritis impacts an individual. As mentioned above, arthritis isn’t always the same every day. Someone may have loads of energy and capability one day and really struggle with their mobility the next. You don’t know what it’s like to be someone else, and telling someone that someone with the same condition can do things they can’t may simply not be true and can also be really hurtful. Living with arthritis can be deeply frustrating as it is. Instead of comparing and judging, try to have compassion and be supportive instead. Try having an open conversation with them, ask them if there is something the two of you could do together that might just give them the confidence to trying something recommended by their doctor.
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