Knitting blankets for CHEO and science

Posted on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

By Linda Scales

The blankets knitted by the women of the Pacesetters, a walking and social group for seniors in south Ottawa, are bringing comfort and warmth to many sick children at CHEO. And the knitting itself is helping two uOttawa professors at the Faculty of Health Sciences evaluate a promising strategy to self-manage pain in older women afflicted with mild-to-moderate osteoarthritis (OA) in their hands.

Close-up shot of the hands of an older woman, knitting

Osteoarthritis affects one in ten Canadians. Professors Lucie Brosseau and Paulette Guitard are studying whether knitting can help sufferers self-manage the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis. Photo: Chelly

OA is the most common form of arthritis affecting more than three million Canadians, many of them older women. It is a degenerative disease of the joints that is not curable. Sufferers must learn to manage the resulting pain, stiffness and loss of mobility it brings.

Last spring, rehabilitation epidemiologist and physiotherapist Lucie Brosseau and Paulette Guitard, director of the School of Rehabilitation Sciences and an occupational therapist, started a feasibility study on knitting as therapy by gathering data from six members of the Pacesetters, aged 78 to 90, who gather every weekday at Billings Bridge Shopping Centre.

Over a six week period, the participants started each day by assessing their level of morning stiffness and pain. After knitting for 20 minutes, they conducted another self-assessment, and then reassessed their condition after two hours and again after four hours, recording this information in logbooks provided to them. Brosseau conducted baseline measurements at three and six weeks, along with periodic assessments of pain, morning stiffness, strength, range of motion, functional status, self-efficacy and quality of life.

The participants reported that thanks to knitting, they experienced 45% less pain and 70% relief from morning stiffness in their hands, with the improvements lasting for four hours.

In September, professors Brosseau and Guitard cited these results when they applied for a research grant to take their work to the next level. If they receive the funding (they should hear in December), they plan to increase the complexity of the study by extending it to 12 weeks and adding a control group.  

Eighty-two-year-old Elena Dimu joined the Pacesetters soon after her retirement some 16 years ago, and took part in the feasibility study. “I’m here every day,” she said. “I’m still walking, knitting and chatting.” She was enthusiastic about the hand exercises given to her by Brosseau, saying “I do them the minute I get up and then I can get on with my daily chores.”

Colourful squares of knitting assembled on a table

About 35 squares are knitted and then crocheted together to make one blanket. The Pacesetters donate about 100 such blankets to the children’s hospital each year.

The idea for the study came to Brosseau after learning of a strategy used by her mother’s friend, a woman who has moderate OA with a lot of morning stiffness and pain. “She said her trick was to knit in the morning to loosen her fingers,” Brosseau said.

The Pacesetters knit about 100 blankets for the children’s hospital each year, as well as hats and mitts for the Snowsuit Fund.

Because an activity has meaning, it helps with the management of the pain. “When you’re doing something you enjoy, you usually don’t feel the pain as much,” Guitard said. “But it’s the same as with anything: you have to do it in moderation. If you sit and knit for eight hours, you’re probably going to have more pain. You have to find the right balance between being active and being overly active, so we’re trying to look at that as well.”

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