It seems 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. Hand arthritis can cause joint damage and is one of the health conditions that can accelerate the hand’s aging. Hand arthritis can make it hard to complete mundane tasks with our fingers. But with physical therapy, you can stop and sometimes even reverse the effects of hand arthritis.
Hand osteoarthritis vs. hand rheumatoid arthritis
We hear a lot about arthritis in the hands, hips and knees. Two primary types of arthritis can cause pain in the hands. Osteoarthritis (OA) is by far the more common of the two, 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 that happens when the protective cartilage between two bones wears or breaks down with age. Without the joint cushion, the connected bones rub against each other, causing pain, swelling, loss of function and more. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the membranes’ lining surrounding the joints (synovium). Over 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
If your arthritis seems to have developed over time and causes morning joint stiffness lasting about 15 to 30 minutes, you have hand osteoarthritis. In contrast, you most likely have rheumatoid arthritis if you suffer:
- 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)
- Symptoms in multiple joints and non-joint structures such as eyes, lungs or kidneys
- Low-grade fevers and fatigue
- Inflammation throughout the body
Treatment options for hand arthritis
The goal with both types of hand arthritis is to reduce pain and calm inflammation. Treatments usually involve a combination of:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroid medications
- Weight loss to reduce pressure on the joints
- Physical therapy to strengthen hand joints and improve grip strength affected by inflammation damage
- Joint replacement surgery
- For those with RA, anti-rheumatic drugs to keep the immune system from attacking tissue
Why you should care about grip strength
Besides making it easier to live independently and complete routine tasks, weak grip strength can indicate premature mortality. A study summarizing 45 peer-reviewed articles showed grip strength to be a reliable 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 called grip strength “a crude but effective will-to-live meter.”
Joint surgery? Try other treatments first
“A common surgery older adults get is a CMC joint replacement,” says Heather Lane PT physical therapist Dr. Patrick Donovan. “Before jumping into your hand surgeon’s recommendation, try performing some simple joint exercises. These will decrease joint stress to allow increased function and better grip strength.” A primary goal of hand arthritis physical therapy is to improve grip strength to help you live a longer and fuller life.
Here are two videos from Dr. Donovan with easy, yet powerful, exercises you can do at home to relieve hand arthritis pain and improve your hand’s movement.
If you have pain in one or both hands, 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.