While there is no cure for osteoarthritis of the hand, patients and doctors can devise a plan to relieve hand pain and restore function.
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- Occupational therapy can strengthen the joints in the wrists and fingers, improve hand dexterity, and protect joints from further degeneration. For many patients, hand exercises can be the most cost effective treatment option.
- Periodic rest can give joints as well as the 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 two or three hours at a time.
- Heat, either warm compresses or paraffin wax hand baths, can soothe affected joints. By warming the viscous joint fluid contained in each joint capsule, heat can help maintain hand flexibility.
- Splinting can stabilize and support the hand joints. There are several different types of braces, including smaller braces that stabilize individual knuckles and larger ones that stabilize the wrist and hand. Some people find braces to be too cumbersome or rigid to wear all the time, and may choose to use snug sleeves instead. Bracing at night can prevent pain from interrupting sleep (commonly seen in carpal tunnel syndrome).
- Topical pain medications can temporarily alleviate hand pain. Most of these pain relievers come in the form of topical creams, balms, gels, or patches, and are sold over-the-counter. Certain other topical products require a physician’s prescription.
- Oral pain medications can temporarily relieve hand pain. People with osteoarthritis often use oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen. However, long term, everyday use of these medications can cause damage to the stomach and cause other negative side effects.
- Alternative medicine treatments, such as acupuncture, dietary changes, supplements, massage, and chiropractic manipulation15 may ease pain and relieve arthritis symptoms in the hands as well as other joints. These treatments are generally not well-researched but do seem to work for some people.
- 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 is occasionally used, particularly if arthritis affects the base of the thumb.
- Surgery is not usually needed to treat hand osteoarthritis. Surgery is not a cure but a treatment option for people who have severe hand pain or have lost significant function due to osteoarthritis and who have not had satisfactory results from other treatments. Two common surgeries for osteoarthritis in the hand are:
- 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 prostheses. These prostheses are typically made of metal and plastic.
A hand surgeon can describe the potential risks and benefits of these surgeries and help decide if surgery is appropriate.
Ultimately, many factors will influence what type of treatment a doctor recommends to a patient with hand osteoarthritis, including:
- Which hand joints are affected
- How many hand joints are affected
- The severity of the joint damage
- The patient’s age and lifestyle
- The patient’s overall health (for instance, does he or she take medications for other medical conditions?)
- The patient’s preferences
There is no known cure for hand arthritis, but treatments can help manage symptoms and help slow down or prevent further degeneration.
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Tips for People with Arthritis in Their Hands
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.
- 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 that allow the user to stick a finger through and pull up or down.
- Choose lightweight cooking and gardening tools that are easier to hold.
- Buy slip-on shoes to avoid having to tie shoelaces.
People may find additional ways to customize their home and routines that help them work around the pain and swelling associated with osteoarthritis of the hand.
- Hulbert JR, Osterbauer P, Davis PT, Printon R, Goessl C. Strom N. Chiropractic treatment of hand and wrist pain in older people: systematic protocol development. Part 2: cohort natural-history treatment trial. J Chiropr Med 2007; 6(1):32-41.