Support aids for people with rheumatoid arthritis

Photo of a prescription (PantherMedia / Florian K ttler)

There are a whole range of devices and gadgets to help people with rheumatoid arthritis in everyday life, ranging from walking frames and dressing aids to special cutlery. In Germany and other countries, they are often paid for by health insurers.

In rheumatoid arthritis, certain joints are permanently inflamed. They may be swollen, painful and become deformed or stiff over time. The muscles then become weaker after a while too. As a result, people have less strength in their fingers and they can no longer make a tight fist. It might then become impossible for them to grasp objects. The inflamed joints sometimes become deformed over time, making it even harder or impossible to move them. Rheumatoid arthritis usually progresses slowly over many years. Even simple activities such as getting dressed or eating and drinking can then become a struggle.

A wide variety of devices and aids have been developed to make it easier to live with rheumatoid arthritis. These are designed to compensate for physical limitations and help with daily activities. Occupational therapists can offer advice on the various devices available, and show people how to use them. Doctors specialized in orthopedics, rheumatology and geriatrics are often familiar with special devices too. Rehabilitation clinics and centers also provide information in this area, and may lend people aids and devices so they can try them out. Different aids and devices are more suitable for different people.

What kinds of support aids are there?

Special aids and devices can have very different purposes and be used to help with a number of activities:

  • Walking and standing: Orthopedic aids such as shoe inserts and special orthopedic shoes aim to change the position of the foot in the shoe, taking pressure off the joints in the foot. Walking aids such as easy-to-grip walking sticks and walking frames can help people get around at home and when out and about.
  • Eating and drinking: Special knives, forks and spoons with large handles made out of rubber or foam are easier to grip and hold. Angled cutlery makes it easier to cut things, and specially shaped tin openers and bottle openers can help open these everyday objects. There are also special cups and glasses, as well as special cup holders and glass holders.
  • Getting dressed: Various special devices have been designed to help people put on things like socks, stockings and trousers. There are also buttoning aids, as well as special racks that are mounted on a wall and designed to make it easier to put on tops when getting dressed.
  • Personal hygiene: Shower stools and bathtub chair lifts can make it easier to take care of your personal hygiene. People with limited mobility can also use special combs, brushes and sponges with long handles.
  • Work: Foam wedges for desk chairs can support your neck while sitting. Specially designed keyboards and writing aids aim to make office work easier for people with limited mobility in their finger and arm joints.

Grips and handle extensions are available for a variety of objects, including cutlery, keys, door handles, pens and taps. These are attached to the objects in order make it easier to grasp, hold or use them. There are special "grabbing tools" too. Non-slip surfaces can help keep things like plates or chopping boards in place in the kitchen, and non-slip mats can stop you slipping and falling in the kitchen or bathroom.

Who pays for support aids?

In Germany, statutory health insurers cover the costs of support aids apart from a fixed co-payment which you pay yourself. But insurers will only cover those costs if the aid was prescribed by a doctor and if they agree to cover the costs beforehand. For instance, they might want to check whether the support aid is suitable for helping with a limitation. Once approved, support aids are usually available in medical supply stores and pharmacies that have a special supply contract with the health insurer. The health insurer will tell you where you can buy them.

A special catalogue of approved aids and devices provides an initial overview. It contains a list of support aids that are generally paid for by the statutory health insurers in Germany. The catalogue (in German) can be accessed on the website of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds (GKV Spitzenverband).

If someone needs nursing care and has already received their official care level classification, their nursing care insurance (Pflegeversicherung) may cover the costs of support aids too. This is the case if, for instance, the support aid serves the purpose of improving safety in and around the home (e.g. a handrail in the hallway). Installing a stair lift can help avoid having to move to a new home.

Special appliances that aim to make it easier to carry on working, such as ergonomic computer keyboards, can also be paid for by pension funds (Rentenversicherung). An application has to be made here, too, for instance through a rehabilitation service center (Reha-Servicestelle). A list of these centers is provided by the German statutory pension insurance scheme (Deutsche Rentenversicherung).

Under certain circumstances, other institutions such as the social welfare office or accident insurance providers can cover the costs of support aids.

Doctors, health insurers and nursing care insurers offer advice and information about who is responsible for covering the costs in individual cases.