Are you sitting comfortably?

are you sitting comfortably

Sitting uncomfortably

We all like a comfy chair. But our needs change. What was once an easy chair can develop into something positively difficult – or even painful – to sit in for any length of time.

And if you have arthritis, rheumatism, backache or other long-term (chronic) illness you need a good, comfortable easy chair.

An uncomfortable chair will only aggravate the aches and pains you already have. You may even find that problems which you thought were due to your condition are in fact caused by a badly-designed armchair.

Perhaps your armchair is an old friend. But now you have difficulty raising yourself out of it after you’ve been sitting down for a long time. Perhaps you begin to get aches and pains and cannot believe that it is suddenly the chair’s fault.

Bad design

The truth is that a badly-designed chair will have always given problems, but now that you are suffering from pain or discomfort these problems are magnified. For example, you may have hips and knees which are stiff and painful. This makes it difficult to put any weight on them or to bend them easily – so getting out of a chair can be a problem.

If you have a badly-designed chair it will be more difficult to get out of, as you will have to bend the aching joints more than necessary. You will also get extra pain because you have to put more effort into it.

Many people with arthritis cannot move about very easily and so spend a lot of time in their easy chairs. Lack of exercise can cause the muscles to become weaker and make it even harder to get up. In fact, for some people it can be such an effort to get out of a chair, or so painful, that they just give up and become chair-bound.

This, of course, makes a big difference to their independence and quality of life.

It will be difficult to do small jobs, make meals, or even go to the toilet.

A well-designed chair will not cure anyone’s arthritis, but it will help alleviate discomfort, pain and associated problems.

Your chair

What problems do you have? Do you find it difficult to get out of your chair? Do you have to use cushions to make it comfortable? Do you get more aches and pains after you have been sitting for a while? Does the chair make you slouch? Is it too large or too small?

Time for a change

If you are not happy with your easy chair, then you should think about getting a different one – one that is properly designed for your needs. This booklet has been written to help you choose the right one.

There are literally thousands of easy chairs on the market today and many claim to be specially designed for someone with arthritis. While we do not specify which chairs are best, we do provide guidelines on features to look for when choosing a chair.

One rule

There is only one rule in obtaining an easy chair: TRY IT BEFORE YOU BUY IT.

You would be amazed at the number of people who buy a chair and have never even sat in it before they part with their money. So, sit in the chairs that interest you. Do not be harassed. Take your time. If the assistant does not like what you are doing, then take your custom elsewhere. They obviously have something to hide.

What to look for

Highs and lows

It is far easier to get out of a high chair than a low one. Many people think they can only be comfortable in a low chair, but this is not necessarily true. A high chair can be just as comfortable and probably more so if you suffer from back pain. A high chair makes getting up so much easier – after all, you are almost half-way up already. So before buying consider this important point.

How high?

Choose the highest chair you can that allows you to place your bare feet flat on the floor while sitting in it. This will stop your legs from dangling uncomfortably and causing pins and needles. If you try a chair wearing shoes with heels instead of your bare feet, when you get home and wear your flat slippers you may find the chair is in fact too high.

If you follow this guideline, a footstool should not be necessary. These can be dangerous – it is too easy to trip over them or stub your toes on them.

If you do find a chair you like but it is the wrong height, you may be able to have it altered. Ask the assistant about this. A high chair can be a real asset in helping you rise and promoting your comfort.

Armrests

If you have painful joints in the hands, wrists, elbows or shoulders, it can be very difficult to use the armrests on a chair. However, every little bit helps when trying to get up. Research has shown that the proper use of armrests can be twice as effective in helping you get up as having a high chair. So look for armrests designed to allow you to use them properly.

The first point to look for is a good handgrip. You will find the armrests easier to grip if they are made of wood and protrude a few inches forward. This will allow you to wrap your fingers around the end.

Secondly, the best armrests are padded for comfort and warmth; and the protruding wooden ends should not have sharp edges to hurt your hands.

It is important that the armrests are at the right height. Sit in the easy chair and rest your arms on them. If you have to hunch your shoulders, then the armrests are too high. If your elbows do not reach, then they are too low. Ideally the front of the armrests should be 9 inches (23 cm) higher than the seat.

Avoid any chair with armrests which protrude well beyond the front legs. This type often tips up when you put your weight on it.

If you can sit properly with your arms resting on the armrests then you are being well supported by the chair. Support promotes comfort.

Armchairs with enclosed sides are usually preferable to open-sided armrests for reasons of warmth and practicality.

Easy rising

The way you get up out of a chair makes a big difference. For instance, it is easier if you tuck your feet back underneath you than if you place them out in front. This is because you can bring your weight over your feet more quickly.

This may seem difficult if you have stiff knees, but if you choose a chair which allows you to reach your feet back to get a better position you will be surprised how much easier it is. This means, of course, that when you are looking for a new chair it is worth ruling out any chair that has no space at the front beneath the seat, or one which has a rail between the legs.

You should be able to use the armrests to pull yourself forward and up, then to push yourself off as you rise to a standing position. Try not to hang on to the armrests for too long in an attempt to steady yourself. If you need steadying, use a walking stick or walking frame in front of the chair once you have stood up. If you cannot get out of the chair easily then the armrests may be too low or too short.

Special chairs to aid rising

So far we have been talking about easy chairs that anyone, but particularly someone who has arthritis, would benefit from having at home. However, there are some people whose disability means they would have great difficulty in rising from even the perfect easy chair. Anyone who experiences this problem may find a motorised chair or spring-assisted seat useful.

Motorised chairs

A motorised chair uses an electric mechanism to lift the seat and bring the sitter to a standing position. Apart from this extra feature, a motorised chair should still incorporate all the other features detailed in this booklet. It is also important to make sure it complies with the British Standards Electrical Safety Standards. This is particularly important for anyone who is incontinent.

Spring-assisted seats

Spring-assisted lifting seats can also be useful. However, these (as well as electric or spring-assisted seats that are fitted to ordinary chairs) often prove to be uncomfortable. Spring-assisted seats have to be adjusted to your own weight. This is fine if you alone use the chair, but be careful if using those in a day centre or elsewhere. Stories have been told of a spring chair being adjusted to help lift an 18 stone (114 kg) man in an old people’s home. A frail, 7 stone (44 kg) newcomer sat in it one day, only to be catapulted half-way across the room!

However, you should have no difficulty whatsoever if you ask the assistant to demonstrate any of these specialised chairs.

Comfort

What makes a chair comfortable? Apart from the features mentioned so far, there are other points worth looking out for.

The seat

You should look closely at the part of the chair you sit on – the seat itself – to make sure it will give you both support and comfort, and a firm base to push up from.

Firstly, the cushion should be made from good-quality foam. Most cheaper foams go soft and start sagging within a few months of purchase. You may, therefore, be quickly disappointed with a cheaper chair.

Secondly, try to avoid seats that sag like a hammock when you sit in them. This can cause stretching of the skin on your bottom, or it can cause your bottom to press through and rest on the base of the seat; this will almost certainly be uncomfortable. Getting out of a chair with a sagging seat is difficult even for the fittest of us. And sagging seats often expose the front rail of the seat support, which can dig painfully into the thighs. It can be particularly painful for those who find they suddenly have to ‘let go’ just before they reach the seat.

Thirdly, the dimensions of the seat are also important. Obviously this depends a lot on your individual size. Avoid getting a seat that is too narrow. The seat should be roomy enough to allow you to change position easily. This will avoid pins and needles or numbness, which may ultimately lead to pressure sores.

You must have room to be able to move about. Sitting still for long periods can be very uncomfortable, unnatural and undesirable. You may want to change your position in a chair for activities such as reading, writing, watching television, knitting, eating or dozing.

Fourthly, never get a chair with a seat that is too deep. It may be tempting to sink back into a deep seat, but think about what is happening to your back. And ask yourself how you are going to get out again. A deep seat means you have to exert a lot more muscle power than usual to get out; the same occurs if the seat slopes backwards too much. If you have painful or stiff joints, or if your leg muscles are not as strong as they used to be, then a deep or steeply-sloping seat is not a good idea. You probably know people with soft, deep, ‘comfy’ armchairs, but what may be right for them will not necessarily be right for you. You may find that a deep seat digs uncomfortably into the back of the legs. The seat should be just deep enough to give full support to the thighs when you sit as far back as possible.

Backrests

A tiring, nagging backache is familiar to many people, and it is important that your back is fully supported. (See arc booklet ‘Back Pain‘.)

A backrest which is gently sloped to fit the curves of your back is helpful. Because the shape and size of people’s backs vary enormously, it is important that you try it before you buy it.

If the backrest is too upright, it will be necessary to strain the back muscles to stop yourself falling forwards. This will prevent you from relaxing and you will certainly never be able to doze in your chair.

If the backrest slopes too far backwards, you will find it harder to get up. It may also cause you to slide out of the chair and stretch the skin on your bottom, which could cause pressure sores and severe discomfort.

The backrest should be high enough to support all of the back, shoulders and head. This is particularly important if you suffer from ankylosing spondylitis, as you are more likely to have back problems. (See arc booklet ‘Ankylosing Spondylitis‘.)

A headrest is also to be recommended, but definitely not one that protrudes forward; this will cause your neck to ache.

Finally, many people who spend a lot of time in their chair find that small wings attached to the backrest are useful for dozing. The only disadvantage here is that you could be cut off from what is going on in the rest of the room, or anyone seated in an adjacent chair.

Take your time

If you find you need extra cushions on your seat or backrest then the chair is not suitable for you. A properly-designed chair should enable you to sit comfortably without having to resort to extra cushions.

One final point about comfort. Research has shown that most people find discomfort occurs only after they have been sitting in the chair for more than half an hour. It is no good going into a shop and sitting in it for a few minutes to see if it is comfortable. You may have more time trying out different chairs in a Disabled Living Centre.

Practical aspects of sitting comfortably

Seat covers

Anyone who is incontinent should think particularly carefully about what type of seat cover would be best suited to them. Although a vinyl covering is waterproof and easy to wipe down, it has the disadvantage of encouraging perspiration and may become slippery. Removable covers over a waterproof vinyl cushion are more comfortable and more convenient. They can be washed whenever necessary. Covers made of wool or – better still – washable sheepskin will be soft and warm. Furthermore, they can absorb a lot of moisture while allowing you to feel dry. Further advice on these can be obtained from an occupational therapist (ask your doctor for a referral) or at a Disabled Living Centre.

Moving the chair

You may find that if your disability progresses it becomes increasingly difficult for you to move your chair. In this case it might be wise to choose a fairly lightweight chair. However, it must be strong enough to take the knocks of everyday use.

Extras

There are extra features which, while not absolutely necessary, can be useful. A side-pocket attachment, for instance, is ideal for holding magazines and other bits and pieces. Some people may find a stick-holder useful.

Function versus fashion

If you have a disability, or if you have difficulties in getting out of a chair, function is always more important than fashion. This does not mean that your chair needs to look very different. Look around at the various chairs available to find, if at all possible, one that blends in with the rest of your furniture.

Suitability

You may have to think about a different style of chair from those you have had in the past, in order to find one that suits your needs. But if you consider your requirements carefully and try it out properly, you may well be surprised at how easy it is to get up from a different kind of chair, and how comfortable it is.

Where to look

Choose your chair at a place where there is plenty of time to look at it, try it out and get advice without feeling pressurised. Why not take someone along for more support, like your partner, a relative or friend? But remember it is your choice – you are the one who is going to have to sit in it. It might be helpful to talk to an occupational therapist – again, ask your doctor for a referral.

You should find a good range of easy chairs in furniture shops and department stores. However, there are also specialist warehouses which are used to dealing with problems experienced by people with arthritis or disabled people. These often have showrooms where you will be made welcome if you arrange a visit. Some chair manufacturers will come to your house to discuss the subject with you, and let you borrow a chair ‘on trial’ in your home. However, beware the pressure salesman!

Ideally you should contact your nearest Disabled Living Centre and arrange a visit. They will have a range of suitable chairs which you can try out at your leisure. A qualified therapist will be there to give you advice should you need it, and will be able to tell you where you can obtain the chairs.

While you are at the Disabled Living Centre it is always worth looking around to see if there are any other hints and aids you can pick up to make life easier for yourself. To find your nearest Disabled Living Centre contact the Disabled Living Centres Council. You may also be able to get useful advice from your local Social Services Department or Citizens Advice Bureau. See also the arc booklet ‘Your Home and Arthritis’.

Chair design checklist

Test any chair against this list. The one which has the most of the features you are looking for will be the one to buy.

  • Firm seat cushion
  • Backrest gently shaped to the contours of the back
  • Comfortable headrest
  • Small wings
  • Filled-in sides
  • Padded armrests
  • No hard edge under back of knees
  • Right depth of seat
  • Right height (to allow bare feet to rest on floor)
  • Good seat covering (not plastic)
  • Right width of seat (to allow change of position)
  • Correct height armrests
  • Wooden ends to the armrests (for gripping)
  • Shaped ends to armrests (no sharp corners)
  • Armrests right length (not protruding so much as to cause instability on rising)
  • Room beneath at front (to tuck feet underneath)
  • Lightweight
  • Accessories: table, side-pocket, stick-holder
  • Overall appearance
  • Removable cover made of an absorbent material such as wool or washable sheepskin
  • Leg design (slightly splayed for stability, not so wide as to cause tripping)
  • Strong construction and materials
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