Hand arthritis and Pain

Question: I have arthritis in my hand (base of thumb and wrist). It can be painful in the cooler months, and sometimes after a day of gardening and/or chores around the house, my thumb and wrist can hurt that evening and into the next day. Is there anything I can do to stop my arthritic symptoms?

The symptoms of hand arthritis can vary between people and over time. You’ll often have good and bad days, and sometimes it can be triggered by certain things or movements and sometimes symptoms can occur for no apparent reason.

Pain, swelling, redness, warmth, stiffness and/or weakness may be caused by a number of things:

  •  Carrying out general daily activity, overdoing an activity, and/or carrying out an activity after a period of rest
  • Stress can make any pain experience worse
  • Sometimes the weather, especially cold weather and barometric changes, can make symptoms worse. However, the weather won’t affect the long-term outlook or how the condition progresses
  • Making the same motion over and over
  • Infection

Arthritis is degenerative in nature and therefore is likely to get worse over time. However, in some cases, episodes of pain or flare ups can dissipate over time and no further damage may occur. Pain (and other symptoms) is an unfortunate symptom of arthritis and while it may not be easy to accept, pain is unavoidable and should be expected. Perhaps then, the expectation should not to be pain free, but instead to manage the pain as best you can.

Ways to Manage Hand Arthritis
  • Using assistive aids, modifications, gadgets and/or pacing
    • Using gadgets such as electric tin openers or tools with softer, chunkier handles that don’t need such a tight grip
    • Using a backpack or shopping trolley to avoid carrying heavy bags in your hands
    • Taking more frequent breaks from tasks that put more strain on your joints or switching between harder and easier jobs
    • Using both hands for some of the tasks that you normally do one-handed
    • Having taps or door handles changed for those that are easier to use
    • Looking out for easy-to-handle fastenings when choosing clothing or shoes
  • Pain relief
    • Applying a heat pack or running your hands under warm water, wear warm gloves in the cooler months and to bed if that helps. Others prefer applying cold (ice) when joints are painful and swollen
    • Splints or supports to help reduce unwanted or very painful movements for a brief time
    • Drug interventions: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) tablets or capsules, other over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol, capsaicin cream, and NSAIDs are also available as gels or creams
    • Lastly, if conservative treatments have been exhausted and are not working, surgery may help
  • Hand exercise therapy
    • Joints need to be exercised regularly to keep them healthy; help ease stiffness and improve grip strength
    • Activities that put a lot of strain on your hand joints are probably best avoided – for example, lifting or carrying heavy weights, or yoga or Pilates movements where a lot of your body weight is supported by your hands
    • You should try to keep moving your hand joints as normally as possible and do some specific hand exercises. Please check out our Get Moving! PLUS Hand booklet for some useful hand exercises. The booklet and exercises are endorsed by a specialist hand physiotherapist from the Royal North Shore Hospital. These exercises should help to maintain as much range of movement and strength as possible, which should help to make everyday tasks easier
    • A Physiotherapist or Occupational Therapist may be helpful in helping you understand more about your arthritis and what exercises you should do.

Author: Kat Keane, Health Educator ANSW
Date: 26/10/2021

Bobos, P., Nazari, G., Szekeres, M., Lalone, E. A., Ferreira, L., & MacDermid, J. C. (2019). The effectiveness of joint-protection programs on pain, hand function, and grip strength levels in patients with hand arthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Hand Therapy, 32(2), 194-211.