While there is no cure for osteoarthritis of the hand, patients and doctors can devise a treatment plan to relieve hand pain and restore function. Treatment plans usually involve a combination of therapies. It may require a little trial and error to figure out which therapies work best for an individual.
Read on to find out what treatments are available for hand arthritis, ranging from tips for relieving hand pain at home to hand surgery.
Treating Hand Arthritis at Home
Arthritis limits hand dexterity and makes everyday tasks more difficult. Described below are several ways people can help relieve stress on their hand joints and make some tasks easier.
Rest the hands periodically
Give the joints and tendons in the hand a needed break. For example, people who type at a computer may need to take regular breaks or divide their work into regular intervals, working for just 2 or 3 hours at a time.
A warm compress or paraffin wax hand bath can soothe affected joints. Applying heat to the hand warms up the synovial fluid that lubricates joints, easing stiffness, and improving flexibility.
Adapt when possible
A few simple lifestyle changes and products can reduce strain on the hands and minimize arthritis pain and swelling. For example:
- Wear coats and shirts with zippers instead of buttons.
- Use long zipper pulls, which are also larger than regular zipper pulls and therefore easier to grasp. Some specialized zipper pulls are made with looped cloth or nylon and allow the user to stick a finger through and pull up or down.
- Choose lightweight cooking and gardening tools that are easier to lift and hold.
- Buy slip-on shoes to avoid having to tie shoelaces.
In addition to making changes at home, people with arthritis may consider treatments recommended by their physician.
Integrative Medicine Treatments for Hand Arthritis
Many doctors today recommend a treatment plan that uses integrative medicine—a combination of conventional Western medicine and alternative medicine. Both Western and alternative treatments are supported by research.
For many patients, hand exercises can be the most cost-effective treatment option.1 A licensed occupational therapist can teach a person exercises that help strengthen the joints in the wrists and fingers, improve hand dexterity, and protect joints from further degeneration.
Stabilize and support the hand joints with splints. There are several different types of braces, including smaller braces that stabilize individual knuckles and larger ones that stabilize the wrist and hand. Bracing at night can prevent pain from interrupting sleep (commonly seen in carpal tunnel syndrome).
People who find braces too cumbersome or rigid to wear all the time may wear compression gloves or sleeves instead. The goal of these products is to support joints while allowing for some flexibility.
Both topical and oral pain medications can temporarily ease pain caused by hand arthritis.
- Topical pain relievers come in the form of creams, balms, gels, or patches, and are sold over-the-counter. Certain topical products require a physician’s prescription.
- Oral pain medications most frequently recommended to treat hand arthritis include acetaminophen and/or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
While topical medications can be absorbed into the bloodstream, they are less likely than oral medications, such as NSAIDs, to have gastrointestinal side effects. To avoid potential side-effects and interactions between any medications, patients should always tell their health care provider about any other drugs and supplements they take.,/
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Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Research suggests Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) may be useful in treating knee osteoarthritis2 and rheumatoid arthritis in the hand.3 Occasionally, TENS may be recommended to decrease hand pain caused by osteoarthritis.
This non-invasive therapy is available over the counter or by prescription. It uses small amounts of electricity to distract nerves and reduce pain. Most people feel a gentle vibration or tingling during TENS treatment. TENS may be used by wearing special gloves or applying electrodes to the affected hand(s).
Read more about Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulators (TENS) on Spine-health.com
Lose excess weight
Obesity is linked to low-grade, systemic (body-wide) inflammation, which may contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.4-6 While not all physicians agree, losing excess weight may lower inflammation and decrease arthritis hand pain and swelling.
Even if a person does not have excess weight to lose, an anti-inflammatory diet may help reduce inflammation in the body that can contribute to arthritis and joint pain.7-9 An anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes:
- Eating fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, such as wheat, rice, barley, and quinoa
- Avoiding foods that contribute to inflammation, including but not limited to foods that are processed, fried, or contain refined sugar (sugar, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, and maltose)
Food reactions can vary for each individual. For example, while whole wheat is normally part of a healthy diet, some people may discover the protein found in wheat, gluten, causes them excess inflammation.
Some of the most common and well-researched supplements for treating arthritis are turmeric (curcumin), ginger, omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin sulfate. Most research studies have shown mixed results, suggesting supplements may provide some people with limited pain relief.10
Additional alternative medicine treatments
While less common, acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation may be tried to ease arthritis pain and stiffness in the hands as well as other joints. These treatments are not well-researched for hand arthritis but may work for some people.11,12
Therapeutic Injections for Arthritic Hand Joints
If other types of nonsurgical, integrative medicine treatments for hand arthritis fail, therapeutic injections may be recommended.
- Steroid injections can provide temporary pain relief for some people. However, these injections are not recommended for repetitive, long-term use, because they can weaken tendons and ligaments.
- Viscosupplementation is a treatment that attempts to reduce pain in the affected joint by injecting a viscous, lubricating substance called hyaluronic acid. Viscosupplementation is not a common treatment for hand osteoarthritis, but it is occasionally used, particularly if arthritis affects the base of the thumb.
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections are a type of regenerative medicine treatment. The hope is to reduce hand pain, improve joint function, and possibly repair damaged tissue.13-15 While the use of PRP injections to treat hand and wrist joints is becoming more common, more research is needed.
To ensure the steroid or hyaluronic acid is injected into the correct area, a physician may use ultrasound to help guide the needle placement.
Most people never need surgery to treat their hand osteoarthritis. Surgery may be recommended to people who have severe hand pain or have lost significant function due to osteoarthritis and have not had satisfactory results from other treatments.
Two common surgeries for osteoarthritis in the hand are joint fusion and joint replacement:
- Joint fusion fuses two bones together. The goal of this surgery is to eliminate the source of the pain, but the joint will no longer move.
- Finger and wrist joint replacement involves surgically removing the damaged cartilage and bony surfaces of the joint and replacing them with artificial surfaces. These prostheses are typically made of metal and plastic.
Surgery is not a cure for hand arthritis—even when surgery is successful, some symptoms may remain. It is also possible that different symptoms may appear and/or arthritis may develop in other hand joints. A hand surgeon can describe the potential risks and benefits of surgery and help decide if it is appropriate.
There is no known cure for hand arthritis, but treatments can help manage symptoms and may slow down or prevent further degeneration.