Cleaning with Chronic Pain or Illness

For the past 16 years, 2 months, and 17 days I’ve been in constant pain. I don’t mention this because I feel sorry for myself. It’s just the reality of my life since my spinal cord injury. I used to clean a lot. But cleaning when you have chronic pain or illness requires some adjustments in your thinking.

Before my injury I was a (semi) dynamo. I worked full time in a management position that required me to walk a large part of the day. I walked 5 miles a day after work or played softball or some other sport with my sons. I cooked and I cleaned. Boy, did I clean! Before I threw away a can I washed it with soap and water. Now I sometimes wish my dishes would do the soap and water thing without my participation.

To say I’ve had to make changes in the way I think about cleaning would be a huge understatement. Yet there are things that those of us dealing with chronic health issues can do. And not just to make cleaning easier but to keep ourselves feeling better.


Don’t fight your body’s schedule: If mornings are your most painful/sick time of day don’t try to jump up and start cleaning. Even if you can start cleaning your body may make you pay for it later. If afternoons are the time you find moving more difficult do the work earlier and spend the afternoon resting.

Take scheduled breaks: I recommend this even when you’re perfectly healthy and cleaning. It can be so easy to wear yourself out cleaning from morning ‘til night. And if you’re not in perfect health breaks are even more important.

Don’t push yourself beyond your limits: Sometimes (okay, frequently) I try to do too much in a day or over several days. Even if the pain gets really bad I tell myself I can do “just a little more.” My pain specialist used to get very upset with me. And he had good reason. Not only was I doing more damage but medications can’t keep up if the pain level gets too high and it takes longer to recover if you push yourself too hard than the amount of time you spent working. You don’t get ahead of things if you spend three days overexerting yourself and it takes five days to recover.

Schedule work by your tolerance: Cleaning the bathroom is extremely painful for me. Even bending slightly over the sinks can cause me to have to lie down for an hour. Cleaning the tub is near suicidal. So I never plan to clean more than one bathroom in a day. In fact, I separate those chores by several days. Think about the things that cause you the most pain or fatigue and only do them on your best days and when you can get plenty of rest afterward.

Work in increments: When I vacuum I have to take frequent rests. I used to think I had to finish an entire room before I could take a break. I’ve learned that I can tolerate about three minutes before I need to rest. It may take me a long time to vacuum but, by working in little chunks of time, I can actually accomplish more during the day.

Adapt the way you do things: If sitting causes you pain start doing as many things as possible standing up. I can’t stand for more than a couple of minutes at a time so I do most things sitting down. I have a stool in my kitchen I use when I do dishes and for prep work and cooking. I garden sitting down and either scoot on my rear end or crawl from spot to spot. I reserve making my grocery lists and do menu planning while lying in bed. It’s easy to type notes on my phone even while I’m stretched out.

Ask for and accept help: Sometimes I get so embarrassed that I can’t do things myself that I refuse to accept help. I’ve gotten much better about it and my husband, my youngest son, and his girlfriend are always more than willing to help. At first I would only allow them to do little things I didn’t think were too hard. What I was really doing was having them do things I could have done myself and then doing the most painful chores myself. I’ve learned that, not only will they do the tough chores but they actually feel good about doing them. I underestimated the happiness that helping me brings them.

Don’t resign yourself to a messy home: A (relatively) clean home is a much more restful environment for you. Do what you can and keep up the areas that would bother you most if they were dirty. If you don’t want anyone seeing a cluttered living room devote more of your work time to that room. But don’t forget to keep up the room you rest and relax in most frequently. If you have to spend a lot of time in bed a clean, fresh bedroom should be a priority.

Accept your limitations: While you should never give up you need to accept your limitations. You should work hard to not allow them to make you feel depressed or that you’re not pulling your weight. You are not slacking. You are acknowledging that you have physical limitations and that it’s imperative you care for yourself.

Celebrate your accomplishments: I used to make extensive lists of chores and took great joy in checking each item off the list. After I got hurt I still made lists but felt just awful when I couldn’t even get through half the items in a day. Now I wait until things are done and make a list of my accomplishments for the day. It’s my little pat on the back for getting things, anything, done. Find something that celebrates whatever you accomplished and do it. Even if your accomplishment for the day is taking time to rest!



Author: Elizabeth

I'm a wife, mom, and grandma (known as Bam) who loves cooking, baking, gardening, and all things that go into making a cozy coop for my brood. I have a disability so you may pick up tips on how to do things when some things just don't work right!

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