If it hurts to turn a doorknob or grip a zipper, you may not need to live with the pain or take drugs. There are several safe but little-known options.
Hand arthritis creeps up on you and affects your daily life, possibly weighing on your mood. But rest assured, there are remedies.
The first thing to know is the difference between arthritis and tendonitis. Most hand pain is caused by inflammation in your tendons near your joints. This kind of pain tends to come and go. Arthritis is inflammation of the joint itself. In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage in your joint crumbles, leaving less material to provide shock absorption; symptoms may occur frequently. In rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system attacks joints.
About 10 percent of people develop arthritis in a fingertip, ending up with Herbeden’s nodes, small bone outgrowths, that can swell and become stiff. About 25 percent of women over the age of 50, and half of women over the age of 70, develop arthritis in their thumb. (Only 5 percent of men do). It’s possible that the ligaments involved rely on estrogen. Some arthritis develops as long as a decade after an injury to the joint. You may have had an undiagnosed fracture in your wrist, for example.
Pain is a signal that something is wrong. Don’t just push through it, and loading up on pain remedies should be a last resort. Over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are hard on your stomach. Prescription drugs may be expensive, not to mention addictive.
There are other safe options that can help you cut back on painkillers or avoid them.
- Topical pain relievers. You can try capsaicin cream, which contains the powerhouse that makes chili peppers hot. It stimulates nerve endings in the skin, prompting your body to block pain signals. Arnica and a product called Biofreeze might work for you, too.
- Paraffin baths. The goal is to trap moist heat in your soft tissues, and wax can help. You’ll dip your hands into the wax, heated to between 120 and 130 degrees F. The next step is to wrap your hands in plastic and wear an outer layer — an oven mitt works. Hold your hand in the arrangement for up to 20 minutes. Look online or in a good drugstore for products that make it easy to melt the wax. They cost from $40 to $128, with different features that make the wax melt faster or temperature controls.
- Orthotics (splints). If your arthritis centers on the base of your thumb, you can support the thumb while keeping your fingers free to move. Your splint may be spongy rather than hard, and can be soft to the touch. You‘ll need to wear these devices whenever you’re using your hands in ways that you know cause pain.
- Compression gloves. These gloves can be fancy or simple. Some vibrate, some contain copper, and others are simply stretchy. Some have open fingertips, while others cover your whole finger. You’ll also have a choice of sizes. Don’t worry, these gloves are easy to put on. The slight compression increases circulation, which can reduce fatigue and pain (the same is true of compression socks). The Arthritis Foundation endorses one product.
- Physical therapy. Look for a physical therapist with expertise in hands. You might need to visit four times to get a full program, which would include coaching in home exercises, an evaluation of your habits, and advice on how to use gloves or splints. To find an expert, see this directory of therapists focused on hands who often work with patients after hand surgery. But another kind of physical therapist might work for you as well.
- Acupuncture. Small needles inserted in spots chosen in Chinese traditions stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue in order to improve blood flow and activate your body’s own painkillers.
See your healthcare provider if hand pain worsens or becomes more frequent. Treatment is based on the number of joints involved, your age, other medical conditions you may have, activity level, and whether arthritis affects your dominant hand. Early treatment can help you return to activities that matter most to you.
May 07, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN