Help! My Hands Are on Fire: Osteoarthritis of the Hand
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease than can affect any joint in your body, including your hands. Hand arthritis is common in four areas:
- basilar joint that joins your thumb and wrist
- fingertips (DIP joint)
- middle knuckles of the fingers (PIP joint)
The cartilage between your joints wears down when you’ve got OA, which means your bones rub together without a cushion. The rubbing causes inflammation, stiffness, and pain. Medication, lifestyle adjustments, and exercises can help you maintain function in your hands and may temper the burning pain of hand arthritis.
Some of the risk factors for hand arthritis are unavoidable. OA is genetic, meaning you are more likely to have it if a family member also has degenerative joint pain. Arthritis is more prevalent as you age, too. Your risk for osteoarthritis of the hand can also increase depending on your profession and other activities. People who work with their hands, such as in manufacturing or construction, have an increased risk of developing symptoms. The more you use your hands, the more wear and tear you place on the joints and the cartilage that supports them.
The symptoms of hand arthritis differ from person to person according to the specific joints that are affected. Most people, however, experience aching when they use their hands. Joint stiffness is also common, and may be more pronounced early in the day after a night’s rest. You may find it difficult to move your fingers when performing everyday tasks like opening jars or carrying items. Grip strength can weaken too. Swelling and tenderness in the knuckles or around the wrists is common in people with hand arthritis.
Bone spurs are a sign of advanced OA in certain patients. A bone spur is a hardened area of bone that attaches itself to the joint. In people with hand arthritis, the spurs are called Heberden’s nodes. The nodes are round, hard, swollen areas that develop around the DIP joint of the fingertip. Heberden’s nodes are a permanent condition and often make your fingers look misshapen. People who have arthritis in the PIP joints in the middle of the fingers can also develop bony nodes. In this center location, they are called Bouchard’s nodes.
The good news is that pain medication can give you some relief when your hot, achy, arthritic hands flare up. For many, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen are effective. Those with severe OA may need a stronger prescription to take the edge off the pain. If oral drugs aren’t doing the trick, ask your doctor about injected medications. An injection of anti-inflammatory medicines and anesthetics can calm the inflamed joints quickly and lasts for several months.
Stiff, achy fingers can impact how you use your hands, making your daily routine more challenging. People with OA in their hands may find range-of-motion exercises beneficial. Range of motion refers to the pattern of movement in your joints. When you can’t move your fingers to their fullest extent, you have limited range of motion. Do simple exercises several times each day to help maintain flexibility in your hands.
- Knuckle bends: Bend your middle knuckles as if you were making a claw with your hands. Then straighten your fingers again.
- Fists: Form a fist with your fingers and then unfurl your fingers. Work slowly to avoid pain.
- Finger touches: Touch your thumb to each fingertip in turn. If stretching your thumb hurts, don’t force it.
- Wall walking: Walk your fingers up a wall and then back down.
Lifestyle adjustments can help make living with hand arthritis easier. Hot and cold compresses are one good home remedy for relief from the pain and swelling. Use compresses as often as needed when it’s not yet time for another dose of medication. Splinting your wrist, thumb, or fingers gives your arthritic joints added support and may help you avoid flare-ups. Speak to your doctor about the type of splint that will work best for your type of OA. Invest in arthritis-friendly kitchen tools and other household accessories that are easier to use. These items have a large, padded grip that does not require as much pinching and squeezing of the fingers.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends an all-around healthy diet that contains an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Use fats, sugar, and salt sparingly to prevent weight gain. If you’re overweight, you put more pressure on your joints, which can cause more trouble if you have arthritis. Research in the Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal suggests that eating produce high in flavonoids may help, too. Fruits and vegetables that are dark colored contain substances that can control inflammation throughout the body. Foods to look for include:
- red or purple grapes
- red onion
- red apples
- leafy greens
- citrus fruits
When osteoarthritis of the hand does not respond to diet, medications, and lifestyle changes, surgery may be a last-resort option. People who have arthritis in the larger joints such as the knee or hip might have a joint replacement, but this is generally not seen in the smaller hand joints. Surgical treatment for hand arthritis includes fusing the bones on the sides of the arthritic joint together, or reconstructing the joints. Fusion limits the movement of the joint and therefore can also limit pain and stiffness. Reconstruction uses soft tissue from other places in your body to replace the cartilage that has worn down.
OA of the hand is a progressive disease, meaning it starts off slowly and gets worse as the years pass. Arthritis can’t be cured, but it can be managed. Early detection and treatment for hand arthritis help you maintain a pain-free life.
- Arthritis: Osteoarthritis. (2013). American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.assh.org/Public/HandConditions/Pages/ArthritisOsteoarthritis.aspx
- Osteoarthritis Diet | Arthritis Foods to Avoid | Arthritis Diet. (2013). Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.arthritistoday.org/about-arthritis/types-of-arthritis/osteoarthritis/daily-life/osteoarthritis-diet.php
- Osteoarthritis: Symptoms. (2013, April 9). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/osteoarthritis/DS00019/DSECTION=symptoms
- Patel, J.M. (2008). A Review of Potential Health Benefits of Flavonoids. Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal, 3(2). Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://lurj.org/article.php/vol3n2/flavonoids.xml
- Slide show: Hand exercises for people with arthritis. (2012, October 9). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/arthritis/AR00030
- Urbano, F.L. (2001, July). Heberden’s Nodes. Hospital Physician. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.turner-white.com/pdf/hp_jul01_nodes.pdf