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Treatment of the Arthritic Hand

More than 40 million Americans are affected by arthritis of the hand, a painful and disabling condition. With arthritis, the cartilage deteriorates and is worn away, which ultimately leads to bone rubbing against bone. The limitations caused by arthritis can make performing even routine tasks more difficult.

The hand has 27 bones, plus the two bones of the forearm, which help define the wrist. Since joints are created whenever two or more bones come together, there is plenty of potential for arthritic problems in the hand. The symptoms of osteoarthritis include stiffness, swelling, loss of motion and pain. Bony nodules may develop at middle joints of one or more fingers and at the fingertips. Osteoarthritis is common at the base of the thumb.

Once hand arthritis has been diagnosed, the next step is to determine the optimal and least invasive form of treatment. Treatment is generally aimed at relieving painful symptoms, controlling inflammation and facilitating normal movement. Physical/Occupational Therapy is a viable option to treat and manage osteoarthritis and can be used by itself and in conjunction with other treatments.

The treatment of hand problems most often performed by an occupational and/or hand therapist. Occupational therapists can construct splints, teach and perform range of motion and strengthening exercises, and recommend assistive devices to aid in activities of daily living. An occupational therapist can also teach the patient to modify their activities to reduce pain and relieve pressure, as well as recommend and instruct in the use of adaptive equipment. The therapist can help the patient reduce joint strain, prevent further joint damage, and conserve energy by teaching joint protection techniques. Some principles of joint rest and protection are:

  • Conserve energy by balancing work with rest
  • Use good body mechanics
  • Use larger joints when possible
  • When lifting, use two hands rather than one
  • Avoid tight grip or twisting motion of hands
  • Use assistive devices for better mechanical advantage
  • Listen to your pain. Increased pain is a signal that you are overdoing it.

If you experience joint pain and stiffness in your hands, you should see your doctor and ask about seeing a hand therapist. Therapy can help to decrease your pain, increase your strength and improve your ability to perform daily activities.