Splints in ancient history

Healers have used splints to stabilize injured limbs for thousands of years. Several mummies from ancient Egypt were found to have splints on broken limbs, which were presumably a result of building the pyramids.

Hippocrates, the Greek physician-philosopher, mentioned splinting broken limbs several times in one of his medical texts. Splints are still used today to stabilize and protect injured or arthritic body parts.

The Greek word “arthritis” means “joint inflammation.” The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is chronic arthritis of the joint cartilage. It affected an estimated 30.8 million American adults annually from 2008 to 2011. OA may cause joint destruction and disability over time.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It’s the second most common type of arthritis, affecting an estimated 1.5 million Americans in 2007. RA attacks the synovial and surrounding tissues of the joints, causing pain, swelling, deformity, and disability. RA is a systemic disease, which may also attack soft tissues such as the heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

Both RA and OA can make your hands and fingers swollen, stiff, and painful. They can seriously limit the range of motion in your hands and wrists.

Splints — specifically ring splints — can be used to support and protect the joints of the thumb and fingers. They can also relieve pain by modifying how much you can bend and curl your fingers.

Joint deformity can occur in both types of arthritis. Ring splints may help keep joints aligned and may even slow the progress of deformity.

OA damages cartilage, which is a smooth, tough, plastic-like tissue that cushions the joints preventing bone-on-bone contact. The loss of cartilage eventually results in the bones of the joint grinding together, causing more pain and damage. Bony bumps called Heberden’s nodes may develop on the joints at the end of fingers.

RA attacks the synovial lining of the joint (synovitis). The joint may become enlarged. The joint capsule, cartilage, and ligaments around the joint can become inflamed as well. Cartilage breaks down and ligaments attaching the joint to the muscle are stretched and weakened. RA patients may also develop hard bumps over or near the joint.

RA almost always attacks the small joints of the hands and feet. The wrist and knuckle joints become stressed when pressure is placed on the hands (for instance, during the action of opening a jar). This may aggravate the disease or further damage the joints.

Flares — periods when the disease is active — reoccur in the same joints. The tissues surrounding the knuckles swell and may return to normal. Cartilage breaks down over time and the ligaments stretch and weaken.

People who have RA may possibly suffer from finger deformities. This may happen slowly over many years. The process depends on the severity of the disease.

Specific-finger deformities associated with RA are:

  • Swan-neck, boutonniere finger, or Z-shaped thumb: The joints of the knuckles slip above or below each other.
  • Subluxation: The wrist or thumb slips down and partially dislocates.
  • Ulnar drift: The fingers curve sharply together toward the small finger.

Ring splints, which fit the fingers and thumb, are made of tough, thin thermoplastic or high-quality silver. They look much like the decorative rings they’re named for.

The oval-8 splint is made of two joined plastic or silver ovals that slip over the finger with the joint resting on top of the knuckle. The splint gently prevents the finger from bending and the knuckles from slipping. It also helps relieve pain caused by movement. Two ring splints joined side by side may help prevent ulnar drift.

Ring splints may help prevent deformities by keeping the fingers in their natural positions. Ring splints also help control the motion of the joint through its normal range.

Southampton University did a study in 2009 in which RA patients wore silver ring splints day and night for 18 months. They wore the splints on fingers that were showing signs of deformity or that were already somewhat deformed. The study showed that the ring splints increased the RA patient’s grip strength and hand dexterity.