How can I help someone with arthritis?

There are four main ways you can help someone with arthritis: understand their condition, talk with them, help with treatments and offer advice on benefits.

Looking after and caring for someone with arthritis is a challenge. You need to get the balance right between providing support and motivation and giving your friend, family member or colleague independence. You’ll need to figure out when it’s a good time to offer help and when it’s a good time to stand back.

The most important thing is to realise that there are no rights and wrongs in caring for someone who has arthritis, and there are many ways of coping with arthritis. There are four main ways you can help someone with arthritis: understand their condition, talk with them, help with treatments and offer advice on benefits.

What should I know about the condition of the person I care for?

What is arthritis?

The more you understand about arthritis, the more you’ll be able to provide effective care and support.
Doctors often divide the different types of arthritis into two groups:

Inflammatory types of arthritis Non-inflammatory types of arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis Osteoarthritis
Psoriatic arthritis Back pain
Gout Neck pain
Ankylosing spoldylitis Shoulder pain

What causes arthritis and related conditions?

Most musculoskeletal conditions are caused by several factors acting together, for example the genes passed on from your parents and environmental factors such as previous injury. Research supported by Versus Arthritis has gone a long way towards finding the causes of most of the common forms of arthritis, but there’s still a lot to be done.

What's the outlook?

Most forms of arthritis differ a lot from day to day and from one person to another, so it’s difficult to predict the outlook. Many types of arthritis are long-term (chronic) disorders which can’t yet be cured. People with arthritis can experience flare-ups, which may be related to things like viral infections, but they’ll often happen for no clear reason. This unpredictability can make arthritis difficult to live with.

How does it feel to have arthritis?

Arthritis affects different people in different ways, and there are no right or wrong ways to feel. The problem with the pain of arthritis is that it can sometimes carry on for a long time and dealing with it day after day isn’t as easy.

As arthritis symptoms are unpredictable, those with the condition need to find their own way of coping. Learning about the disease is an important factor, and a specialist rheumatology health professional will often help with this.

What do I need to talk about with the person I care for?

Good communication is essential between carers and the people they care for. It’s important that you both discuss how you’re both feeling. You need to agree how to work together so that they’ll feel able to ask if they need extra help and to turn it down if they don’t. Sometimes you may have to stand back and watch your partner, child, friend or colleague struggle to achieve a goal that’s important to them. Try to respect their wishes, allowing them to maintain their self-esteem.

Communication will also help you judge how the person you’re caring for is feeling and so you can respond in a sensitive way. They’ll need to feel supported and reassured that you don’t resent the responsibility falling on you.

How can I help with the physical challenges of arthritis?

You can help with the physical challenges of arthritis by trying different ways of reducing pain and stiffness, encouraging exercise and a healthy diet, fighting fatigue and understanding the role of drug treatments.

Helping with pain and stiffness

  • If a particular activity is causing problems, encourage the person you’re caring for to find a different way of doing it. An occupational therapist can give advice on aids and adaptations that may help.
  • Hold a hot-water bottle or an ice pack (or bag of frozen peas) against the painful joint for 10–15 minutes. Wrap them in a towel to avoid burning the skin.
  • Find non-physical ways of occupying the mind. Relaxation, massage and yoga can help ease pain and tension.

Encouraging exercise

  • Encourage daily exercise to keep the joints moving to minimise pain and stiffness – swimming and cycling are good activities.
  • Speak to a physiotherapist if you need advice about exercise. Join in the exercises so they’re more of a social activity and less of a chore.
  • Start gradually and increase the amount over time as the body adjusts to the increased activity.

Fighting fatigue

Some people find the fatigue caused by arthritis is more difficult to cope with than the pain. You can help to reduce fatigue by:

  • spreading, pacing and planning activities, especially during a flare-up – this can also help reduce pain and stiffness as well as increase the chance of activities being carried out successfully
  • encouraging regular exercise
  • setting up a regular sleep pattern

Understanding the role of drugs

Drugs, such as painkillers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), are one of the main treatments for arthritis. The person you care for should speak with their doctor about the types of drugs that may be suitable for them. Together, they’re in the best position to weigh up the benefits and possible side-effects of taking drugs. Everyone is different, so if one drug isn’t working a different one might.

If the person you care for has an inflammatory arthritis, it’s important that they start drug treatment quickly because the sooner they begin treatment, the more effective it’s likely to be. The person you care for must follow their doctor’s instructions when taking drugs.

Every treatment occasionally causes side-effects, but the risk of these can be reduced by following the doctor’s advice. If you’re worried, or think that they may be causing side-effects, take the person in your care to see their doctor.

Encouraging a healthy diet

It’s important to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables for good general health. People with arthritis should keep to a sensible weight as being overweight will increase the stress on the joints. Some people with arthritis do seem to benefit from changing their diet, though there’s no single diet that helps with all types of arthritis.

How can I help with the emotional challenges of arthritis?

The effect of arthritis on mood

It’s normal for people with arthritis to experience a wide range of emotions. Encourage them to focus on positive experiences and think about what they can do rather than things they have difficulty with.

People with chronic conditions such as arthritis are more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression. If you’re worried that the person you’re caring for may be affected by depression, encourage them to seek help from their doctor.

Arthritis and confidence

Having arthritis can make some people feel less self-confident. Your support, if wanted, can increase their confidence and help them to keep an active social life. Keeping up their personal appearance, as well as regular socialising, can help keep self-confidence levels high.

What benefits are we entitled to?

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Disability Service Centre can advise you on whether you're entitled to any benefits for yourself or the person you're caring for.

If you get an unfavourable response from the agency assessing your claim, you may be able to appeal against their decision, but try not to take it personally or let it upset you. Talk to a rheumatology nurse specialist or doctor if you need medical support for your claim.

Practical help may also be available from a local Social Services department if the arthritis is causing major difficulties with everyday activities.


If the person you care for is having difficulty with work, they can speak to a Disability Employment Advisor (DEA) about adaptations, professional support and retraining. You can contact DEAs through your local Jobcentre Plus office. There may also be a doctor or health advisor at the person’s place of work who could help.

Driving and getting around

If needed, you can modify your car so the person you care for can continue driving. You can get advice from RiDC, a consumer research charity, or a specialist mobility centre can arrange an individual assessment (there's normally a fee for this).

Speak to your local council or look online for information about applying for a disabled parking permit (the Blue Badge scheme).

Tips from other carers

Learn to recognise when symptoms are bad as the person you care for may need extra support. Remember that pain may make them irritable, angry and depressed at times.

Be patient if the person in your care has to do things differently and more slowly. They may find it difficult to carry out normally simple tasks and they may be embarrassed. If you notice changes in their behaviour, it may be because they need help. You or a healthcare professional may be able to help by raising this tactfully.

Talk about how roles may have to change – a rheumatology nurse specialist or an occupational therapist can help. Be sensitive to the feelings of the person in your care – it may be difficult to watch someone else doing their job.

Join in with exercises and encourage the person you care for to find activities to replace ones that they can no longer manage. Useful activities such as voluntary work or an educational course can make some people feel better.

If the person you're caring for would like you to go to hospital or GP appointments with them, most doctors would be supportive of this. 

Don't let yourself become isolated and look after your own health and well-being. Make sure that you still take part in the activities that are important to you and remember that you have needs as well. Caring can be hard work. At times you may feel irritable and depressed – which is normal and understandable. If it appeals to you, join a local support group. You can also get advice from Carers UK.

Research and new developments into caring

Versus Arthritis continues to fund and support research into all areas of arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. We're currently funding several educational grants to investigate the informational needs of people who care for those with arthritis. We're also funding a project to develop a web-based tool for support and self-management of young people with chronic arthritis and their carers.

Where can I find out more

Action for Children
3 The Boulevard
Ascot Road
Watford WD18 8AU
Phone: 0300 123 2112

Benefit Enquiry Line
Phone: 0800 220 674

Carers UK
20 Great Dover Street
London SE1 4LX
Phone: 020 7378 4999
Advice line: 0808 808 7777

Citizens Advice Bureau
To find your local office, see the telephone directory under ‘Citizens Advice Bureau’ or the Yellow Pages under ‘Counselling and Advice’. Details of local offices can also be found on the Citizens Advice website.

Scope (formerly DAIL Network or Dial UK)
Phone: 0808 800 3333

Driving Mobility
Phone: 0800 559 3636

National Careline
Helpline: 0800 0699 784

A not-for-profit company providing information about care and support for older people, their carers and their families.

National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS)
Ground Floor, 4 Switchbank Office Park
Gardner Road
Berkshire, SL6 7RJ
Phone: 0845 458 3969 or 01628 823524
Helpline: 0800 298 7650

Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People (QEF)
Leatherhead Court
Woodlands Road
Surrey KT22 0BN
Phone: 01372 841100

RiDC (Research Institute for Disabled Consumers)
Ground floor, Unit 10, Blenheim Court
62 Brewery Road
London N7 9NYP
Phone: 020 7427 2460