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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Self-help Arthritis Devices. Arthritis Foundation website. http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/pain-management/joint-protection/arthritis-devices.php. Accessed June 18, 2016.
- Occupational Therapy’s Role in Managing Arthritis. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. website. http://www.aota.org/-/media/corporate/files/aboutot/professionals/whatisot/pa/facts/arthritis%20fact%20sheet.pdf. Accessed June 21, 2016.
- Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/osteoarthritis/. Accessed June 21, 2016.