Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in your hands. Just getting through daily life can be difficult with pain and stiffness in your thumbs, knuckles, and/or wrists.

See When Hand Pain Is Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis in the hand or wrist joints can make it hard to open jars or grip objects. See Recognizing Osteoarthritis in the Hand

Hand osteoarthritis has its challenges, but there are several ways you can make some simple lifestyle adjustments to live more comfortably with this condition.

What is osteoarthritis?

This condition is referred to as degenerative arthritis because the cartilage between your joints wears out, or degenerates. Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, including the knees, hips, neck, lower back—and even your hands.

See Risk Factors for Hand Osteoarthritis


5 ways to manage hand osteoarthritis

Consider the following ways to cope with this condition:

1. Exercise your hands

Employ specific hand exercises to help maintain flexibility, strength, and range of motion in your hands and fingers. Here are three simple exercises to consider:

  • Hold your hand in an open, natural position. Then, move your thumb to the base of the pinky finger, or as far as you can go. Repeat this movement several times on each hand.
  • Hold your hand in the air, keeping the fingers upright and close together. Then, bend the middle joints of your fingers. Gradually return your fingers to the original position and repeat. Perform this exercise on both hands.
  • Again, hold your hand in the air, keeping the fingers upright and close together. Next, make a “c” shape with your fingers. Gently come out of the position and repeat. Perform this exercise on both hands.

Staying active is important, but you should also take periodic rests. If you are a hair stylist, for example, schedule rest breaks in between appointments to give your hands a reprieve.

2. Use heat or cold for comfort and swelling

Generally, heat helps stiffness and tired muscles; cold helps alleviate sharp pain and decrease swelling. Experiment with the options below to see whether heat, cold, or a combination of the two provides you relief.

Heat options:

Heat helps increase circulation. You may find that heat therapy can help calm the pain and stiffness, helping with your mobility and comfort. The trick is to figure out what type of heat therapy works best for you. Here are some examples:

  • Moist heat is most beneficial for some people. You can buy a moist head pad, for example, at a drugstore. Thermophore is a brand that offers several types of these heating pads.
  • A paraffin bath is a warm bath of wax that provides heat to your hands. This device can be purchased at beauty supply stores and major retailers, such as Walmart and Amazon.
  • Heat wraps adhere to the hand and provide an extended duration (i.e., 6 to 12 hours) of low heat throughout the day. These wraps are available under brand names such as Thermacare and many generic brands.

A warm shower may help reduce stiffness as well.

See 9 Easy Ways to Apply Heat to an Arthritic Joint

Try making your own ice pack at home. Watch: Video: How to Make a Gel Ice Pack

Cold options:

  • Use an ice pack, or apply a cold pack to the affected region for 10 to 20 minutes. Be sure to cover the pack with a towel or cloth to prevent ice burn.
  • Take an ice bath. Plunge the affected area into a bath of ice and water.

See 3 Types of Cold Packs for Arthritis

Your physician and/or occupational therapist may have input on which therapy will best fit your needs.

3. Work with an occupational therapist

An occupational therapist can help you manage your osteoarthritis. He or she may do the following:

  • Work with your hands during office visits and show you hand exercises to do at home. There are several exercises you can do on your own to maintain mobility.
  • Suggest lifestyle modifications, such as wearing shoes that slip on to avoid tying shoelaces, or using zippers instead of buttons on clothing.
  • Recommend you using small devices to make challenging tasks easier. If you find it difficult to open a jar, your therapist may recommend a fixed jar opener.

An occupational therapist can also give you ideas on how to manage your pain.

4. Consider your pain medication options

Topical pain medications, such as gels, balms, creams, or patches, may give you temporary relief. You can purchase many of these medications over-the-counter. Taking oral pain medications is also an option for temporary pain relief; ibuprofen and naproxen are two examples.

See Topical Pain Relief for Arthritis

A corticosteroid injection may also be recommended to help reduce inflammation. You will probably feel the effect more quickly with this injection compared to oral over-the-counter pain medications. The impact, however, tends to be localized to the injection site. You should discuss any risk factors or potential complications with your physician.

See Treatments for Osteoarthritis in Hands

5. Be informed

Be proactive and educate yourself about your condition. For example, consider learning about:

  • The causes of hand osteoarthritis.
  • Who can help you manage the condition.
  • Treatment options available.

Attending an arthritis support group and/or participating a self-management program are two ways to get education and support on your disease.

Above all, don’t let hand osteoarthritis prevent you from doing the activities you love. If you are passionate about gardening, consider using lighter weight tools and wearing gloves to protect your hands. If cooking is your favorite pastime, kitchen utensils with large handles may make the process a little easier.

Thinking ahead and making some minor adjustments can make your life with hand osteoarthritis a little easier.

Learn More:

See Osteoarthritis Symptoms and Signs

See Over-the-Counter Topical Arthritis Pain Relief

  1. Self-help Arthritis Devices. Arthritis Foundation website. Accessed June 18, 2016.
  2. Occupational Therapy’s Role in Managing Arthritis. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. website. Accessed June 21, 2016.
  3. Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Accessed June 21, 2016.