If your hands are pain-free, it’s easy to take them for granted. But when you have arthritis, you notice just how important your hands are for everyday living.
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Your treatment options for hand pain and other symptoms depend on your specific type of arthritis and how severe your case is. So talk to your doctor directly about medications, injections and other treatments that may help.
But beyond medical treatments, you can take steps on your own — and with the help of experts — to get a grip on your condition.
1. Take advantage of timing
Hand pain varies for different types of arthritis.
For example, people with osteoarthritis tend to have pain that gets worse as the day goes on. If this applies to you, try being more active in the morning. Get your gardening or yard work — and other activities that require heavy hand use — done early. Schedule your tee time or tennis game for the morning. You’ll feel and perform better as a result.
People with rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory conditions may feel the opposite. They tend to wake up stiff. As the day goes on, they loosen up. If that describes you, save your activities for the afternoon and evening, when you feel your best.
In either case, don’t overdo it. For people with arthritis, the “play through the pain” sports cliché offers a recipe for injuries.
2. Get expert advice on adapting
Never underestimate your power to adapt. But also don’t underestimate an occupational therapist’s (OT’s) ability to help you adapt.
For example, an OT can offer exercises designed to strengthen your grip, keep your pain levels down and increase your range of motion. All three are critical.
An OT also can help you adjust how you interact with everyday objects in your home or office, plus sports gear. For example, I have patients with severe thumb issues who have changed the way they grip ski poles to put less stress on their thumbs.
Your hobby might differ, but the goal of working with an OT remains the same: to help you be as active and independent as possible.
3. Embrace ice and heat
First, the ice. An ice massage can do wonders for pain caused by physical activity. Take a piece of ice and rub it in a circular motion over your painful joint. Just don’t do it for more than five minutes at a time so you don’t irritate your skin. You can use an ice pack with a cover, too.
As for heat, soaking in warm water offers relief. In fact, some of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis enjoy the feeling of warm water so much they will even hand-wash dishes in the sink to get a good soak. Just remember that heat isn’t always a good idea for an acute injury.
4. Seek specialized tools
With help from an OT or a doctor — or groups such as the Arthritis Foundation — you can find adaptive tools to ease your hand pain.
For example, look for kitchen utensils and gardening tools with special, thicker grips if you have trouble handling regular tools.
In the office, you can order special keyboards for computers that are easier on your hands, plus hands-free headsets for talking on the phone. You can even get special pen adapters that make putting ink on paper easier.
The same goes for physical activity. I’m a golfer, as are many of my patients. For golf, tennis or other hand-intensive sports, specialized grips can make a big difference.
I recommend gloves for all sorts of activities, too. They reduce friction, and the compression they provide can ease symptoms. A golf glove may help your tennis game, for example, even if it takes some getting used to. And even though gardeners love the feel of the earth, the protection and extra grip gloves provide are important.
What works for you may not work for somebody else, so it may take a little experimentation to find relief. But don’t be afraid to ask an OT or doctor for help. Your hands are too important to your daily life.