Maybe you first noticed the pain or stiffness when tying your shoelaces. Or perhaps it was from trying to unscrew a jar. However it first occurred, many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) know how its effects on the hands can be debilitating.
Even though RA is a system-wide condition, symptoms tend to appear first in the small joints of the hands and feet. As the immune system mistakenly attacks joints in the hand, pain, stiffness, and inflammation can soon follow.
Signs of RA in the hands
Some of the symptoms of RA in the hands and wrists include:
- Pain and inflammation at the site of joints, particularly the knuckles—this affects both hands at the same time (known as symmetrical inflammation)
- Hand or wrists feel warm or tender to the touch
- Numbness or tingling in the thumb or first 2 fingers, which is a result of carpal tunnel syndrome
- Round, hard bumps under the skin (rheumatoid nodules) that appear near the affected joints
- See a complete list of RA symptoms in the hands
What you can do to manage symptoms
If you have RA, you may already know the nature of these symptoms and how they can affect your day-to-day life. Unfortunately, RA can eventually cause hand deformities as joints in the hand and fingers become so damaged that they move out of alignment.
However, there are ways to decrease pain, improve hand function, and slow the progression of joint damage.
Here are some tips that can help you manage symptoms of RA in the hands:
- Take your RA medications
Although your medications are intended to treat your whole person and not just your hands, the better controlled your overall RA is, the more manageable symptoms in your hands will be.
Occupational therapists are trained to help you strengthen your hand and wrist joints and help improve your hand dexterity.
Immobilizing the hand and wrist can ease pain and stabilize the hand. They may be especially useful if a mild deformity has already occurred to keep it from getting worse.
You can lessen the strain on hands and wrists by choosing clothes without buttons and/or shoe without laces.
There are an increasing number of products for kitchen and household use that are made specifically for people with hand problems. For example, they may have bigger, softer handles or they don’t require a strong grip to operate them.
There are two surgical options for hand joints that are not responding to non-operative treatments and are affecting daily life: fusion or joint replacement. The choice about which option is better depends on the age and activity level of the patient, the location and condition of the joint, and the patient’s priorities in terms of mobility.
Talk with your doctor or rheumatologist if you have RA and you’re struggling with symptoms in your hands or wrists.