Arthritis in the hands can limit everyday activities, but it doesn’t have to! Most Americans are not aware that there are other options to alleviate symptoms, or ways to adapt activities, to continue work, self-care and leisure activities. In this blog our Hand Therapy experts will discuss strategies, tools and splints that can keep your hands healthy and assist in daily activities.
The Importance of Joint Protection
The first principles that should be introduced for living with arthritic hands are joint protection techniques. These techniques and modifications can be tailored to fit one’s lifestyle and hobbies. The general principles are as follows:
- Respect pain.
Pain is the body’s way of letting you know that you are causing tissue damage. Avoid activities that cause immediate pain, pain that lingers for several hours or causes pain in the next 12-24 hours. Modify or eliminate tasks that are causing aggravation. Ask for help or hire out help for jobs that are likely to cause discomfort.
- Use larger and stronger joints for tasks.
Protect the small joints in the hands and use the larger and stronger joints in the arm, if possible. Some examples of this include using two hands to lift heavy objects like a gallon of milk. Use a forearm or shoulder to push open a door, rather than pushing a door open with your fingers. Use this technique when carrying groceries. Instead of supporting a bag’s weight on the fingers, carry the bag close to your body supporting the bag with the hips and arms. Better yet, use a small wheeled cart to carry large loads and to avoid multiple trips.
- Be sure to move.
Remember to avoid staying in one position too long, as this can cause stiffness, especially if it is a position that could lead to further joint damage. Stop to take breaks and stretch every 15-20 minutes when performing repetitive pinching or grasping activities such as needlework, knitting or crocheting, painting, sewing our using hand tools. These types of activities can lead to tightening of the muscle in the hands and stress the joints of the fingers.
- Avoid unnecessary labor or tasks when possible.
Consider using prepared foods, frozen vegetable mixes as recipe starters for meals and use pre-cut vegetables to save time and strain on joints. A food processor can save your hands from unnecessary wear and tear and save time when chopping food. Instead of lifting heavy pots, slide them on the counter rather than picking them up to safe effort. Also, carry a backpack, instead of holding a purse or handbag.
- Avoid tight or prolonged grasp and grip of small objects.
Tools, utensils, pens and toothbrushes can all be modified with enlarged handles to help avoid tight grips. In addition, many kitchen gadgets and gardening tools are available with enlarged, soft rubberized handles that are easier to hold on to, decreasing stress on the joints of the hands. There are lots of adaptive aides available for opening jars, turning door knobs, turning keys, and to assist with zipping and fastening clothing. If you can’t find these at a big box store, consider searching your favorite online retailers. Go to your favorite web browser and search, “tools for arthritic hands,” or “gadgets for people with hand arthritis.”
Work Smarter, Not Harder
The second set of tips involves avoiding using your hands as a tool. While some mammals have sharp claws for defending, others like moles have an extra bone to aide in tunneling, and other mammals have hooves and fins to aide them in traveling their terrain. As humans, our thumbs allow us to hold tools, rather than to be used as tools. There’s no need to put unnecessary stress on our hands if there’s a tool available to lighten the load. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t use your hand as a hammer. Use a rubber mallet or hammer itself around the house for odd jobs and use a meat mallet in the kitchen, as needed. Avoid using your hand to flatten or pound an object as it can cause unnecessary force over the carpal tunnel and even rupture blood vessels in the hand.
- Avoid tearing opening mail and packages with your hands and finger. This stresses your fingers and puts you at risk for paper cuts. Instead use a mail opener, utility knife or scissors to make light of the job.
- Use a staple remover instead of fingers and thumbs. This will save a manicure too!
- Use utility scissors in the kitchen to open food packages and bags, which will avoid tight pinching and tension on the finger joints.
- When tight sustained pinching is required, consider the use of a pliers to decrease pressure on the joints of the hands.
- Keep scissor and knives sharp to minimize effort. Consider a self-opening scissors, which automatically opens back up, saving your finger joints.
- Using an electric or battery-powered can opener can save the hands from repeated stress.
- If prolonged holding is required when reading or playing cards, consider using a book stand or holder to bring the book to eye level. Use a “chip clip” to avoid prolonged gripping or pinching of cards.
- Use pump shampoos, conditioners, and toothpaste to avoid excessive forces required to squeeze tubes and bottles. Use the palm of your hand to pump, instead of squeezing containers to avoid excessive forces.
First Aide Basics for Arthritic Hands
Should you end up overusing your hands, consider some first aide basics. Using heat can help to decreased soreness and loosen stiff joints, especially in the morning. This could be applied in the form of heat packs or a warm bath or shower. Remember to avoid using heat after an acute injury (such as a fracture, sprain or strain) or during an inflammatory state. Cold packs or cold water soaks are great for pain relief or swelling during a “flare up” or after overuse. However, their use may cause increased stiffness, especially in the winter months or in cooler climates.
Seek the Help of a Hand Therapist
If you continue to have symptoms after trying some of these techniques or have further questions, consider hand therapy as a treatment option. Hand therapists at Athletico have specialized training in the treatment of arthritic conditions and injuries of the hands and upper extremities. Our hand therapists can tailor equipment, design and fabricate or suggest orthotics and splints, and recommend modifications that would be beneficial for your specific conditions, to allow you to participate in your daily activities.
Find a Hand Therapist Near You
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The Hand Owner’s Manual: a Hand Surgeon’s Thirty-Year Collection of Important Information and Fascinating Facts, by Roy A. Meals, Virtualbookworm.com Pub., 2008, pp. 2–3.
“Getting the Upper Hand with Arthritis: Hand Care Tips.” ASHT, ASHT, 2005, www.asht.org/sites/default/files/ArthritisArticle%200516.doc.
“Living with Arthritis.” Aota.org, 2012, www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/Adults/Arthritis.aspx.
“Joint Protection Techniques for Hand/Finger Arthritis.’ NHS King’s College Hospital, Mar. 2019.” NHS.UK, NHS King’s College Hospital, Mar. 2019, www.kch.nhs.uk/Doc/pl%20-%20840.1%20-%20joint%20protection%20techniques%20for%20hand/finger%20arthritis.pdf.