When you have arthritis, even the simplest everyday activities can be difficult and painful. Turning a key or using a kitchen knife can suddenly become a real challenge.

Those daily difficulties can be eased by working with an occupational therapist, a particular type of therapist who helps people with arthritis live life to its fullest by maximizing their ability to participate in activities, promoting safety, and enhancing quality of life. The sooner you start working with an occupational therapist, the more you can benefit.

Right after your arthritis diagnosis is a good time to see an occupational therapist, says Carole Dodge, OT, CHT, an occupational therapist and Allied Health Supervisor/Clinical Specialist in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Occupational Therapy Division at University of Michigan Hospital in  Ann Arbor. Your primary care physician can refer you, and Dodge says her first visit with a patient who has arthritis is mostly about listening to what activities they engage in, particularly anything that is difficult because of the arthritis, followed by a physical exam.

“We want to know how they’re doing with ny daily activities such as school, homemaking, work, things like laundry or anything that might become challenging, no matter how large or small,” Dodge explains. “Then we plan an appropriate plan to address all those issues. My goal is to teach them self-management skills as much as possible. “

The plan could include custom fitting splints or supports that can ease the stress on painful joints and help prevent deformity. Occupational therapists also teach people how to protect their joints by performing tasks in an alternate manner, such as using both hands or using an assistive device.

“People with arthritis really benefit from assistive devices because they help them do more tasks with less pain,” Dodge says. “I also focus a lot on home exercise programs that will help increase their range of motion, flexibility, and strength. My goal is to improve their strength so that they can do certain functional activities like turning doorknobs, and then encourage them to continue an exercise plan on their own at home after they’ve reached a certain strength level.”

If you don’t work with an occupational therapist as soon as you’re diagnosed, that’s not a problem. It’s never too late to seek this specialist’s help. Many people with arthritis seek an occupational therapist when they realize that the arthritis is making certain activities at work difficult or some simple motion like buttoning a shirt is frustrating.

“I always let people know that even if they’ve worked with an occupational therapist and then stopped going once they learned some skills and were fitted with assistive devices, they can always be referred again at any time,” Dodge says. “Arthritis is a chronic disease, so it will continue and change over time. Occupational therapy is always a good option for learning how to overcome some of life’s challenges when you have arthritis.”