Managing Arthritis

Sore hands? how to tell if it's arthritis

Man having pain in his hands and fingers

Your hands and fingers are sore. Could it be arthritis? Discover the signs, as well as ways to manage it.

Signs of arthritis in the hands and fingers

Different kinds of arthritis affect the hands and fingers differently, says Danielle Hogg, an Arthritis Society Canada occupational therapist.

Osteoarthritis tends to affect the thumb joints at the bottom of the thumb, the middle knuckles and the knuckles closest to the fingertips, sometimes making them swollen or crooked. In rheumatoid arthritis, the knuckles closest to the palm of the hand, as well as the wrist, become painful, swollen and warm. In psoriatic arthritis, the whole finger or fingers tend to be swollen. In all cases, the pain can burn, ache or feel sharp. Your hands and fingers may also feel stiff.

"Some people tell me it's like trying to move their hand while it's buried in sand," says Hogg. Common in the morning, this stiffness usually decreases after an hour or so with osteoarthritis but persists longer for inflammatory arthritis.

How arthritis is diagnosed

Your healthcare provider may use a variety of ways to assess your symptoms, including a physical exam, medical history, x-rays or blood tests. It's important to get a diagnosis from your healthcare provider to avoid confusion with other forms of hand or finger pain, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which is treated differently.

Taking the Arthritis Symptom Checker will help you have that first conversation with your healthcare provider.

Protect your joints

"If your hands are hurting, don't push through the pain," cautions Hogg. "It's important to protect your joints."

Here are some great ideas:

  • take breaks so you're not holding your hands in the same position for long periods of time
  • spread out tasks; if a full day of chores hurts, for example, do them over several days instead
  • use two hands instead of one to perform tasks
  • slide objects across the surface of a counter or table, instead of gripping or lifting them
  • use assistive devices, such as kitchen tools, that grip well
  • opt for large handles on toothbrushes, writing utensils and other household items
  • replace door knobs and taps with lever-style handles
  • carry grocery bags over your shoulder
  • prop up a book or tablet rather than holding it to read
  • wear compression gloves, available at drug stores, for fine motor tasks like crafting, or overnight
  • talk to an occupational therapist for ideas and adaptations for your specific situation. An occupational therapist can also help you choose a splint to support and protect your fingers, or a hand or wrist splint you can wear at night.

Exercise your hands and fingers

It's possible to strengthen your hands and fingers by going through "range of motion" exercises.

Hogg also recommends the "oil and glove" approach. Rub some mineral oil on your hands, put on a large pair of rubber dish gloves, and immerse your hands in a pan of hot water while you go through the exercises for five minutes or so.

This useful Arthritis Talks webinar presents other great pain management strategies.

Does cold weather affect arthritis?

You’re not imagining things. "When we're exposed to the cold, our muscles contract more and that can cause more pull around the joints, causing more pain symptoms," says Hogg. For some, warm weather can be difficult. That's why it's important to understand how to deal with warm and cold temperatures when you have arthritis.

Rest, exercise and eat well

With all forms of arthritis, rest, exercise and eating well are always important ways to manage pain and stiffness.

If self-care strategies aren’t enough to deal with pain from arthritis in your hands and fingers, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about prescription medications, therapies or surgical options.