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Those Aches in Your Hands Could Be Arthritis. Here’s What Can Help

Maybe one day you wake up with an ache in your fingers or at the base of your thumb. Or you feel a stab of pain when you pick up a dinner plate, cut your fingernails or turn a doorknob. You wonder if maybe you overdid it weeding your garden, or you have an overuse injury from computer work.

A lot of different things can cause hand pain, and one of them is osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Anyone can develop it, and your risk is higher if you are over 50 and female.

Brittany Panico, DO, a rheumatologist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, explained that if you have this type of arthritis in your hands, you’ll often feel it when you pinch or grip things. It most commonly affects the first two joints below your fingernails and the joint at the base of your thumb.

Here’s what hand arthritis can feel like

Typically, your joints will ache or feel stiff. It’s more common for you to notice symptoms when you wake up, in the evening and after activity rather than during activity. “You might feel like your hands are ‘stuck’ and have a hard time gripping,” Dr. Panico said. You might notice pain when you twist, squeeze or lift things. It could be tough to sustain a grip or maintain your fine motor coordination. And you might hear a crunching or grating sound.

Here’s what causes hand arthritis

You have a layer of cartilage that helps protect your bones, and over time, this cartilage wears down. Areas of tension develop on your bone, and you develop something like a callous or bone spur. That’s why knuckles with arthritis are bigger. This excess bone makes your joint feel stiff and swollen and reduces your mobility.

While aging is the main factor in developing arthritis, some things can worsen it. If you’ve had a joint injury or surgery in the past, arthritis might develop faster. You may also be more likely to develop arthritis if you use vibrating equipment like jackhammers or power drills.

“We don’t know if there is a link between long-term computer work and arthritis, but people who use their hands for extended periods of time may notice more joint stiffness as they get older,” Dr. Panico said.

(Another type of arthritis, called inflammatory arthritis, develops when the immune system affects the bones and joints. This type of arthritis also causes swelling and decreased range of motion, and it can progress more quickly than osteoarthritis.)

Can you prevent hand arthritis?

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent or delay osteoarthritis outside of avoiding injuries and possibly limiting your use of vibrating power tools. You don’t have to worry about cracking your knuckles, though—that doesn’t cause arthritis. And while arthritic joints may crunch or crack, these noises on their own don’t signal that you have arthritis.

Why it’s essential to diagnose hand arthritis

If you have hand pain, the first step is to have it diagnosed. “Many times, I will see patients for ‘arthritis’ and diagnose them with another condition that causes joint pain,” Dr. Panico said. Gout, pseudogout, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and tendinitis can have similar symptoms. “These conditions are treated differently, so it is worth the evaluation,” she said.

She also said you’ll want to have a medical professional evaluate your joint pain if it’s impacting your ability to do your job or your daily activities or if your range of motion is shrinking and it’s becoming difficult to move the joint. A simple X-ray can determine if you have osteoarthritis. 

“People often think their condition is just part of aging. That might be true, but there could be something other than arthritis causing your pain. And even if we cannot completely take the pain away, we can help you understand ways to modify activities,” Dr. Panico said.

How can hand arthritis be treated?

You’ll want to talk about various treatment options with your health care provider. Depending on the severity of your arthritis, you may want to consider:

  • Pain relievers such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 
  • Voltaren gel, which you can buy over the counter
  • Steroid injections for thumb arthritis
  • Glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen or turmeric supplements—these supplements reduce pain for some people, but the FDA doesn’t regulate them
  • Paraffin wax treatments, which you can do at home
  • Hand warmers when your hands are cold—Dr. Panico explains that your joints can feel looser with heat and tighter with cold
  • Plant-based and anti-inflammatory diets, which might decrease the pain and stiffness from arthritis
  • Staying active, which contributes to your overall health

What about those copper-infused products that are marketed to people with arthritis? Their effectiveness hasn’t been replicated in clinical trials and they may be no more effective than a placebo, Dr. Panico said.

These tips can make it easier to live with hand arthritis

The pain of hand arthritis is often worse when you’re pinching or gripping. But those motions are a vital part of many everyday activities. An occupational therapist can teach you ways to modifying the way you do them. You may also want to:

  • Add grips to pens and pencils to make them easier to hold
  • Record your voice instead of typing
  • Swap a ball mouse for your trackpad for computer work
  • Use pots and pans with two handles, so they are easier to carry
  • Choose dishwasher-safe dishes over those you have to wash by hand
  • Replace household items like scissors, nail clippers and knives with versions designed for people with arthritis
  • Request prescription medication without child-safe caps, as long as there are not young children living in your house
  • Choose clothing that doesn’t have buttons or zippers
  • Use pump containers instead of squeeze bottles for shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, soap and other products

Sometimes, it can help to wear a compression device or a splint to minimize movement in the joint. “An orthopedic therapist can make recommendations and ensure that you’re fitted properly,” Dr. Panico said. 

And pay attention to the time of day when you notice symptoms. “Typically, the joints are less stiff early in the day, so planning your fine-motor tasks for then can help decrease discomfort,” Dr. Panico said. If you take medication for joint pain, you’ll get maximum relief within one to four hours, so time your activities for then.

The bottom line

Hand arthritis can cause aching and pain, especially when you pinch or grip, making it challenging to do many everyday activities. But with the right diagnosis, treatment and lifestyle modifications, you can find ways to do the things you need to do as well as those you enjoy. To connect with a health care professional who can evaluate your hand pain, reach out to Banner Health.

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