How are hands affected by arthritis?
Any joint in your fingers, thumbs, knuckles and wrists can be affected by arthritis. Many different types of arthritis can affect your hands and cause joint pain, swelling and stiffness, e.g. osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Just because you have arthritis in one finger does not mean you will spread to all your fingers and wrist, however, if you have RA, it is likely to affect more than one joint in the hand and it often bilateral. People with hand arthritis often find their grip weakens and it becomes harder to do fine movements, such as turning a key or tying shoelaces.
How can I protect/rest my sore hands?
The first thing to do is to become more aware of how you are using your sore joints. For example, try watching how you make a hot drink. What is happening to your wrist and fingers as you turn on the tap or lift a heavy kettle?
Does it cause pain?
Try to think of another way of doing this activity which will reduce those aches and strains. You might try picking up the kettle with two hands. Or use a tap turner to make it easier to grip the tap. These are examples of ‘joint protection’. It doesn’t mean you should stop using your joints. It just means that you should use them differently to reduce the amount of stress going through your joints.
Here are some ways to protect the joints in your hands:
- Take notice of pain – it can serve as a warning that your joints are being overworked. Rather than giving up an activity altogether, try taking regular rests during the activity. You will usually find you can still do the things you enjoy without discomfort.
- Use larger, stronger joints – for example, carry your shopping bags over your shoulder rather than in your hands. Spread the load over several joints – try carrying things with two hands.
- Reduce the effort you have to put in – there is a wide range of labour-saving tools and equipment available.
- Buy pre-cut vegetables and meat to make cooking easier.
- Avoid gripping things tightly – find out about gadgets that can make gripping and holding objects easier. See our offer from Performance Health below.
- See an occupational therapist to learn more ways to make daily tasks easier and take pressure off your joints. For more tips, visit our BLOG Post, Tips for Managing your Housework, in the Resources list below.
- Visit an Independent Living Centre. These centres have a wide range of tools and equipment on display. You can get advice, including where to purchase equipment, in person or over the phone. Occupational therapists are also available at the centres to provide advice about equipment. Although you can drop in at any time, it is preferred that you call the telephone enquiry service beforehand. Find an Independent Living Centre here.
Are splints useful?
Splints may be helpful in some cases. They are often used to support the joint at the base of the thumb and for hands affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Splints are usually worn only when the joint is painful or to protect the joint during certain activities. Splints should not stop you from moving or using your hands as this can cause the muscles to weaken and waste. An occupational therapist can advise whether hand splints will be useful for you.
Should I exercise my hands?
Yes – performing hand exercises can help reduce the stiffness of the joint, can improve muscle strength and joint range of motion. Try to make sure you move any affected joints in your fingers, thumbs, knuckles and wrists as far as is comfortable several times a day. Exercises can be performed almost anywhere and even just a little conscious movement can have a major effect in the long term.
Ensure that when performing the exercises that your hand and wrist is supported by placing it on a stable surface such as a table top. This is ensure there is less strain on the joints and that it is supported in proper alignment. When lifting heavy things or needing grip strength, try to keep your wrist a neutral position (i.e. wrist is straight and not bent).
If you have arthritis in the hand, you must find the right balance between exercise and rest. Rest is often needed to settle inflamed joints, but too much rest can lead to weakened muscles and increased stiffness over time.
Slow controlled pace
Perform the exercises SLOWLY, bending and stretching as far as possible within pain limits. Relax your hand after every set.
Below is a video link to some hand exercises you can try at home to assist you with the management of arthritis in your hands or also as a preventative measure that will strengthen the hands before arthritis occurs.
You could also see an occupational therapist or physiotherapist for tailored hand exercises to suit you.
What else can I do?
There are other treatments that may help you deal with pain and stiffness:
- Medicines: Many different types of medicines can help the symptoms of hand arthritis. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you understand which medicines are right for you and how best to use them.
- Heat and cold: Applying heat, such as a hot pack (microwaveable wheat pack), heating pad or hot water bottle to stiff, painful joints may help relieve these symptoms. For further information visit our BLOG Post below – Hot and Cold Therapies Explained
- Creams: Applying creams or ointments containing anti-inflammatory medicines, capsaicin (an ingredient in cayenne and chilli peppers) or Arnica gel (a herbal medicine) may help control pain. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about these types of creams.
- Surgery: surgery to repair the damage from hand arthritis is relatively rare. One reason is that finger surgery has a high complication and failure rate. It can also sacrifice mobility for pain relief. The two main surgical options for hand arthritis are fusion (arthrodesis) and total knuckle replacement (arthroplasty). See more information from the Arthritis Foundation in our Resources list below Hand Surgery for Arthritis.
- Massage: can be an alternative pain management strategy. Massage may even help to increase range of motion (ROM) in your joints. However, please be aware, like most complimentary medicine and therapies, that massage may only provide temporary short term pain relief and ROM changes. That’s not to say don’t try it, you may really like it and look forward to a nice massage once a month, but keep in mind it won’t cure your arthritis.
- Low level laser therapy: There is some scientific proof that low level laser therapy (by a physiotherapist) can help reduce pain and swelling, particularly in the hands of people with rheumatoid arthritis. See your physiotherapist for more information.
- Fish oils: Fish oils may be useful for some forms of arthritis that affect the hands. See the Fish oils sheet for more information.
- Herbal therapies: Creams containing Arnica gel may help control pain. There is no conclusive proof that other herbal medicines are effective in treating arthritis of the hands.
Performance Health Discount
Arthritis NSW has arranged a special 20% discount with Performance Health for our members. Performance Health offers products and tools that can help you with your hand arthritis – such as gloves, jar/bottle openers and key turners. Use code ANSW when ordering. (Freight $12.10). Call 1300 473 422 or visit https://www.performhealth.com.au/
- Hand and Wrist Information Sheet: a printable version of some of the information above.
- Hot & Cold Therapies Explained: BLOG Post
- Tips for Managing your Housework: BLOG Post
- Fish Oil: Information Sheet
This BLOG post contains general information and advice. Every effort has been made to ensure that the information is accurate and reliable. The content of this BLOG Post is not a substitute for the individual treatment advice of your doctor or health professional. Always consult your doctor or healthcare provider to obtain individual medical, management or treatment advice. Use this as a guide only.
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