It seems like the older we get, the harder it is to perform precision movements like buttoning shirts or grip tasks like picking up a fork or opening a jar. Health conditions, such as hand arthritis, accelerate the hand’s aging through joint damage. This makes it even harder to complete mundane tasks with our fingers.
But we can stop and even reverse the effects of hand arthritis with physical therapy. Here’s what to know about the condition and the exact exercises you can do to improve your pain and dexterity without surgery.
Hand Osteoarthritis vs. Hand Rheumatoid Arthritis
We hear a lot about arthritis in the hands, hips, and knees, but did you know there are two primary types of arthritis?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is by far the most common, with 32.5 million adults suffering from it. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects a much smaller percentage of the population, about 1.3 million adults.
Both diseases involve chronic inflammation and bone-on-bone rubbing, but the causes of these symptoms are very different.
Osteoarthritis is a “wear and tear” arthritis, happening when the protective cartilage between two bones wears or breaks down with age. Without the joint cushion, the connected bones rub on each other, causing pain, swelling, loss of function, and more.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the membranes’ lining surrounding your joints (synovium). With time, the resulting inflammation damages the cartilage and bone at the joint, causing the joint to change its shape and alignment.
Signs and Symptoms of Hand Arthritis
Both hand osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis present with:
- Joint pain
- Joints that feel tender and warm
- Joint deformities at advanced stages
- Hand weakness
- Bone spurs
- Limited range of motion
However, hand osteoarthritis develops over time and causes morning joint stiffness lasting around 15 to 30 minutes.
In contrast, hand RA suffers experience:
- Sudden flare-ups and remission of symptoms
- Prolonged morning joint stiffness (30+ minutes)
- Symmetrical inflammation (inflammation on the same joint on both sides of the hands)
- Multiple joints and non-joint structures affected (eyes, lungs, kidneys, and more)
- Low-grade fevers and fatigue
- Inflammation throughout the body
Treatment Options for Hand Arthritis
The goal with hand osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is to reduce pain and calm inflammation. Treatments usually involve a combination of:
- Anti-rheumatic drugs to keep the immune system from attacking tissue in those with RA
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroid medications
- Weight loss for less pressure the joints
- Physical therapy to strengthen hand joints and grip strength reduced by inflammation damage
- Joint replacement surgery
Joint Surgery? Not Here! Other Treatments to Try for Hand Arthritis
“A common surgery older adults get is a CMC joint replacement. Before jumping into your hand surgeon’s recommendation, there may be some simple joint exercises to perform. These will decrease joint stress to allow increased function and better grip strength,” says Dr. Patrick Donovan of Heather Lane Physical Therapy in Denver.
Here’s a video from Dr. Donovan with easy-to-do, but powerful exercises you can do at home to relieve hand arthritis pain and improve your hand’s movement.
Why Should You Care About Grip Strength?
Besides making it easier to live independently and complete routine tasks, grip strength is a vital predictor of premature mortality. A study summarizing 45 peer-reviewed articles showed grip strength to be a robust predictor of mortality, disability, and increased complications and length of hospital stays.
That’s because decreased grip strength is an important marker of frailty, nutritional status, and vitality. One of the researchers cited in the study said grip strength is “a crude but effective will to live meter.” A primary goal of hand arthritis PT is to improve grip strength to help you live a longer and fuller life.
Call Heather Lane Physical Therapy at 720-507-3962 or book your free 10-min phone consultation online and be on your way to improving your hand arthritis and avoiding surgery.