Having lived with arthritis for 8 years, there have been countless times when people have tried to say things that minimize my condition.
These statements may appear harmless or well-intentioned at first glance, but after a while, they can become demoralizing for people with a chronic condition like arthritis.
Whether you’re a friend or family member of someone with arthritis, or you have arthritis yourself, here are some statements to steer clear of.
Yes, some people living with arthritis do not have visible symptoms, and you might mean this as a compliment, but I can assure you, it’s not.
Timothy Mwale, a 62-year-old retired teacher, was diagnosed with arthritis when he was in his 50s. He says this is the most common phrase he heard from people around him.
“The pain was debilitating when it started, but I looked okay on the outside,” Mwale says. “Some people thought I was just imagining the pain or that someone was using witchcraft on me.”
Mwale is the first in his family and among his friends to be diagnosed with arthritis. While navigating his diagnosis, Mwale also spent time educating those around him on what living with arthritis is truly like.
Diagnosing arthritis is nearly impossible to do based on sight alone and often requires a CT scan to be properly diagnosed.
Instead of saying someone doesn’t look sick, find out more about arthritis from the person living with it. Replace “you don’t look sick” with “what is arthritis and how does it affect you?”
Symptoms differ from person to person so questions like this can allow for a greater sense of compassion and understanding.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 21. My mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 24. We have both been told this countless times in our lives.
According to the CDC, almost 60 percent of people who have arthritis are between the ages of 18 and 64.
Instead of telling someone they’re “too young to have arthritis,” consider asking them what it’s like to navigate the condition at such a young age. This allows you to learn more about arthritis without perpetuating misconceptions.
Arthritis has no cure at the moment. You might think you’re helping someone by telling them about a “cure” you’ve heard about, but it’s more than likely they’ve already extensively researched your cure and have tried it for themselves.
There are foods and medicines that have been shown to reduce inflammation, like turmeric and black pepper, but these are not cures for arthritis.
Someone at Mwale’s daughter’s church suggested a supplement for her allergies. Then she pushed her dad to try that same supplement for arthritis.
People with arthritis are on a perpetual search for a cure. They have likely tried every sworn remedy in the books — and then some. Regardless of your intentions, think twice before offering recommendations, especially ones that aren’t rooted in science. This is extremely frustrating for people with arthritis.
Consistent exercise is recommended for the overall health of the body, but for people with chronic pain, weight loss is more complicated than taking more frequent trips to the gym.
When you tell a person with arthritis that their pain could be eliminated through weight loss, you’re reducing their condition to them being lazy or unmotivated.
Exercise that is gentle on the joints is advisable for people with arthritis, but it’s almost impossible to exercise during flare-ups.
Since arthritis is an inflammatory disease, some people will often appear bloated, which can be a major source of insecurity.
Offering weight loss advice is offensive. Discussions about weight should be reserved for the patient’s healthcare professionals only. Instead of telling someone to lose weight, check in on their symptoms and brainstorm a physical activity you can do together.
Surgery is a scary word to hear for most people. It was the same for Thandie Kapenda Simpson, who was diagnosed with arthritis in 2014.
“I woke up with a stiff neck and I just [took] painkillers and it went away,” Simpson says. “After a few months I got a stiff neck again, I thought it was the pillow I was sleeping on and got rid of the pillow. After a few days, it got worse. So I went to see a doctor. The doctor could see that I had a problem with my spine but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong.”
After a while, Simpson could not lift her left arm. Multiple misdiagnoses left her with even more uncertainty. When a doctor recommended surgery to eliminate her pain, Simpson was shocked.
“That was a huge blow,” she said. “I nearly broke down when he said that to me.”
On her next visit, she learned she had cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the spine. She was told she didn’t need surgery because of her young age, but the stress from her previous visit stayed with her.
Surgery should be recommended only when a patient has been diagnosed and understands what they are facing.
People with arthritis are often advised to reduce stressors, but that doesn’t mean that stress is the cause of arthritis. Implying any medical condition can be reduced to stress alone is a simplistic way of looking at a disease.
If you’re looking to help a loved one de-stress, offer to engage in relaxing activities with them.
Ask them what’s burdening them and how you can help. While this won’t cure their arthritis pain, it may help them get through a difficult time, or just give the two of you an opportunity to relax together.
As a person living with arthritis, I have heard all of these statements countless times — and it’s likely you have heard them, too.
Being misunderstood in any regard can be extremely frustrating. Your experiences hold more weight than what other people think. If the advice from others doesn’t help you in any way, try your best to kindly correct them and brush it off.
If you’re a friend or loved one of someone with arthritis, please try to provide support, not unsolicited advice. The best thing you can do for any person with a chronic condition is to offer assistance where needed and to ask questions with compassion when unsure.
Fact checked on March 30, 2022
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