How knitting helps Rachel cope with arthritis pain

27 February 2023
Two images of Rachel, who has osteoarthritis and Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome.

This March, our incredible community of knitters will pick up their knitting needles and stitch some crafty creations all for a good cause: to help us continue to support people with arthritis.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, anyone can take part in our knitting challenge. It’s good fun, you’ll get a Versus Arthritis tote for taking part, plus every penny you raise will make a difference to everyday people with arthritis.

We know that, for many people, knitting is a fantastic way to relax and unwind. One person who understands just how relaxing crafting can be is Rachel, a local councillor from Wales who lives with osteoarthritis and Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome.

She talks about why representation matters, the importance of staying active, and how knitting helps her deal with her pain.

Rachel’s story

Rachel has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her spine, neck, as well as the joints that connect the spine to the hips. “It’s very painful and intense, and it’s gotten progressively worse,” she says.

“I became particularly unwell when I was having my youngest son. I was in a wheelchair at that stage, and it was really hard. I could take about 20 steps and they were shuffles, not proper steps.”

“I used to be able to run around with them and do all sorts. I remember when I had our third son, I couldn't pick him up without pain, even as a tiny baby"

Rachel, who has osteoarthritis and Ehler's Danlos Syndrome

Soon after this, Rachel was also diagnosed with Ehler’s Danlos syndrome, which is sometimes called a joint hypermobility syndrome. This means you can move your joints more than most people can, which can sometimes lead to pain, fatigue and injuries.

“Getting a diagnosis offered a little bit of relief,” she says. “It also gives you an idea of what you can do to manage the condition moving forwards.” 

One step at a time: exercising with arthritis

Nowadays, Rachel can get around without a walking aid – and she credits this largely to physiotherapy and keeping active.

“I spent two years doing rehab and getting to a point where I could walk without a walking aid,” she says. “It’s been a long path, but it’s been a really big achievement for me.”

Keeping active is important if you have arthritis because it can help reduce your pain, improve your balance and strengthen your muscles – and Rachel agrees. For her, keeping active has been a game-changer.

“I can’t advocate more for physical activity,” she says. “Low-impact activities and physiotherapy are so important. Because the stronger your muscles are, the less strain you’ve got on your joints.”

“It's incredibly important to get some physical activity,” she adds. “I think if I hadn't had access to a swimming pool when I was rehabbing, I don't think I'd be walking today. I really don't.”

Keeping pain at bay with knitting

When living with pain and fatigue, it’s important to take a moment to look after your mind and do the activities that bring you joy. For Rachel, there’s nothing quite like picking up her knitting needles and getting stuck into her craft.

“When you find yourself not being able to move around a lot, you find yourself doing a lot more other activities – and knitting is one of those things for me,” she explains.

“It massively helps me. It's an easy way to get your brain to do something, without focusing on your pain.”

Rachel, who has osteoarthritis and Ehler's Danlos Syndrome

“You could be thinking or talking, but because your hands are doing something, you don’t focus as much as the pain in your back. It allows me to focus so much more.”

Tips for knitting with arthritis

We know that knitting can be tricky if you have arthritis. You might feel stiffness in your hands or maybe you struggle with your grip strength.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up your hobby. There are small ways you can make it a bit easier.

Some people find it helpful to take frequent breaks or to soak their hands in warm water before they start knitting. You could also try some gentle exercises for your fingers, hands and wrists.

Rachel also points out that there’s “more than one way to do any of these crafts” and that it’s important “to find what works for you.”

“Some people hold the wool in their right hand and move it over the needle from that side, which is known as English knitting or flicking,” she explains.

“If you do it differently and hold it in your left hand, that's called picking or continental knitting. I can't do the picking and continental knitting because I've got some issues in my wrists.”

“I've got a limited style of knitting, but it works for me and I’m quite speedy at it nowadays,” she adds.

Working with arthritis

Keeping working when you’re living with pain and fatigue can be difficult – and, as a local councillor in Wales, Rachel has seen her fair share of obstacles.

“It’s quite challenging because there's a traditional expectation that somebody who wants to be elected will knock on your door and talk to you,” she explains. “If you've got mobility issues, that's much more of a challenge than if you’re an able-bodied candidate.”

“The strain of doing that much walking, let alone if you use a wheelchair, means that so many doors are immediately inaccessible to you,” she says.

“So, I think it's important for political parties to appreciate the limitations that their candidates face and to support them when they’re campaigning.” 

Despite the barriers she’s faced, Rachel feels that it’s crucial that people with long-term health conditions, such as arthritis, are represented in local government.

“It’s important that people who represent our society are part of the decisions,” she says. “I think it personally gives me a much better understanding of what it means to provide disability services.”

Finding a support network

When asked who her biggest supporter is, Rachel can’t help but smile. “It’s definitely Dave, my husband,” she says. “He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s really the linchpin of our family.”

She’s also found a supportive group of friends in her area, who have similar pain and joint issues.

“Just being able to speak to them and other people is really affirming,” she explains. “It’s helpful to speak to other people who understand the pain and issues you experience every day. It makes you realise that you’re not alone.”

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