Osteoarthritis (OA) in your hands can be extremely frustrating—we use our hands so much, and when just about every move you make is coupled with stiffness or pain, it can be really difficult. “With OA, one of the major management strategies is protecting the joint and not overstressing it. So, we teach people how to use their hands,” says Ilene Cohen-Ackerman, an Arthritis Society occupational therapist and Clinical Practice Lead. “It’s not ‘sit there and don’t do anything,’ or ‘push through the pain.’ Rather, the approach is ‘change the way you use your hands,’ so you can do the things you want to do without force that affects the joint. With joint protection strategies, you’re really protecting your function and independence.” Consider these approaches for managing OA in your hands.
“When you wake up feeling like the tin man, jump in the shower and you’ll feel like a new person,” says Cohen-Ackerman. Warmth relaxes the muscles and increases blood flow, which helps to soothe stiffness and pain. Another technique is to rub some oil, such as massage oil or regular cooking oil into your hands, then put on a pair of rubber gloves and soak your hands in hot water. The gloves allow you to put your hands in hotter water without hurting your skin.
Wearing compression gloves, available from health care stores, overnight or during the day helps give hand joints support and can decrease pain. A more rigid splint or brace is also a potential option: people with bad thumb pain, for example may find that a rigid splint is very helpful at controlling pain while they use their hand, says Cohen-Ackerman. Choose assistive devices that help your hands too—they range from book rests and playing card holders to key extenders and kitchen and garden tools. An occupational therapist can help you get the right fit for braces and choose the correct assistive device.
Break up activities. “Garden for half an hour, then take a break, then garden some more if you’re feeling ok. Or, spread out your gardening over a week rather than all in one day,” suggests Cohen-Ackerman. If you’re doing a hobby that you can get lost in, like knitting, painting or woodworking, set a timer to remind yourself to press pause. Other approaches include using both hands to lift something, and varying your activities so you’re not doing the same movement repetitively.
Use your bigger joints
Look for ways to take the strain off your hands, such as using your hip to close a door or drawer, carrying your bag crossbody-style on your shoulder, and taking the change and other heavier items out of your wallet or bag. Push or pull when you can, such as using a wheeled grocery cart as opposed to grocery bags.
Try a different grip
Use your hands in a “C” or “O” grip for as many of your daily activities as you can, such as pulling a zipper or opening a jar. Why? A grip that uses curved fingers is easier on your joints than the pincer grip, which puts a lot of force on your thumb and fingers.
Practice range of motion
A simple and regular series of hand exercises—spreading your fingers, making a fist, bending your wrist—can help you maintain and even improve your range of motion. Check in with an Occupational Therapist (OT) for an assessment and recommendations.
Living with hand pain and stiffness from arthritis can be challenging, but remember there are ways to help and manage it. “You name an activity, there’s a solution for it,” says Cohen-Ackerman.
For more tips and tricks, visit the Arthritis Society’s Daily Living online module.