There are over 100 different types of arthritis, but they all tend to be associated with pain, discomfort and reduced mobility. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form; in fact, there are about 21 million osteoarthritis sufferers in the US alone. This painful, degenerative disease breaks down the cartilage in a joint (a site where two or more bones connect). Considering the fact that each of our hands contains about 27 bones, the hands are a magnet for OA. Over time, if OA is left untreated, the hands can actually change shape, which is both painful and debilitating. But even regardless of your diagnosis or genetics, you can take prevention steps to reduce pain and decelerate the progression of OA. Implementing techniques that focus on alignment, strength and range of motion can help you keep doing the things you love!
Hand osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative disease of the cartilage in the various hand joints. It most commonly (but not always) affects people over the age of 50. Everyday wear and tear, overuse, improper alignment, even an acute injury that didn’t heal properly can cause the protective cartilage in the hands to gradually deteriorate. As this happens, painful friction develops between bones. Simple activities like typing, chopping vegetables, or grasping a child’s hand become increasingly painful as the disease progresses.
Symptoms of hand OA include pain, stiffness, swelling, tenderness, loss of flexibility and strength, decreased range of motion, excessive warmth, and grinding or grating in the joint.
Additionally, if the OA is in the end joint of a finger (the one closest to the finger tip), cysts can develop between the joint and the fingernail. It is unclear exactly why these fluid-filled sacs develop, but for the most part, they are not harmful, though they may cause mild discomfort. Seek a medical professional if one appears like it may rupture, because if it does, like in the case of any open wound, you’ll want to avoid infection.
In advanced cases of hand OA, the actual bone structure of the hands changes. This can mean different things for different people, but commonly, as arthritis in the knuckles worsens, the fingers deviate away from the thumb.
Hand OA involves the swelling and deterioration of the cartilage between the bones in the hand. Each hand is made up of about 27 bones. There are 14 finger bones (phalanges), 5 bones in the palm (metacarpals), and about 8 bones in the heel of the hand and wrist (carpals). The cartilage between all these bones acts as a cushion. After years of wear and tear, the cartilage begins to break down, becoming rough and frayed. The result is painful friction between the bones. The body tries to solve the problem by sending inflammation to the affected joint. Unfortunately, that stimulates scar tissue growth, which is tough and inflexible, and only makes matters worse.
Age, genetics, gender, and overuse are all factors that contribute to the development of hand OA. People over age 50 are more likely to develop OA, and some have a higher chance of developing it than others due to family history. Women are more likely to develop OA than men, as are people whose jobs require repetitive use of the joint (like carpenters, tailors, seamstresses, and hairdressers).
Another major risk factor is injury. An acute injury, like a fracture that affects the cartilage in the joint, or a dislocation, can trigger the onset of OA. Even when treated properly, joints that have suffered such injuries are more likely to develop OA than other joints.
- Be aware. As soon as you recognize signs of OA, seek advice from a medical professional. The sooner you begin a treatment plan, the better your chance of slowing its progression. A doctor can recommend certain medications to reduce swelling, and a physical therapist or therapeutic trainer can help you implement a fitness plan to prevent the loss of muscle tone and function.
- Avoid inflammatory foods. A diet composed of highly processed, inflammation-inducing foods may exacerbate symptoms of OA. Make whole foods 95 percent of your daily diet, leaving junk food for special occasions. For further assurance against the progression of OA, focus your diet on anti-inflammatory foods.
- Keep moving. It’s common to feel like you need to stop moving to prevent pain. True, you want to reduce inflammation, and there is such a thing as too much exertion. However, if you stop moving your hands entirely, you will begin to lose range of motion more rapidly. Finding a balance is key. Try to gently exercise the hands regularly, which is a crucial step to slowing the progression of OA. Try alternatively stretching your hand and make a fist, massaging one hand with the other, or Pressurizing the Hands (directions follow).
1. Pressurize the Hands. Pressurizing the hands increases circulation to and from the hands to help you maintain dexterity in the fingers and thumbs. To Pressurize the Hands, first imagine points at the base of the thumbs, pinky fingers, outer palms, and inner palms. Pull the finger stems long and push through all four points of the palms. In everyday life, you can Pressurize the Hands when you push a revolving door or hold anything in your hands. Pull finger stems long and push your palms against the door or against the object you are holding.
2. Align the Shoulders. The alignment of the shoulders directly affects the hands. If the shoulder is misaligned, it can misalign the arm, which puts excess stress on the hand. Additionally, the misalignment in the shoulders can result in nerve compression, reduced circulation and even decreased muscle tone. To Align the Shoulders, first pull the collarbone wide—create width between the outer tips of the shoulders without compromising the space between the shoulder blades; then push the shoulder blades down toward the feet—creating space between the shoulders and the ears. In everyday life, you can Align the Shoulders while carrying a heavy bag. Instead of letting the shoulders slump under the weight of the bag, pull your collarbones wide. Each exhale, let the pressure of the bag’s strap remind you to push the shoulder blades down the back toward the feet.
3. Stabilize the Arms. To ensure you are able to Pressurize the Hands proportionately, you will need to Stabilize the Arms. If the arms are not stabilized, you may notice excess pressure in the thumbs or the pinky fingers. By stabilizing the arms, the wrists and hands can maintain better alignment, reducing the amount of wear and tear on the joints. To Stabilize the Arms, first focus on the technique Align the Shoulders. Once the shoulders are aligned, make sure to micro-bend the elbows—a very small bend—to prevent excess strain on the ligaments in the elbow. Then, engage the deepest layer of abdominal muscles—the transverse abdominis—by pulling the belly in toward the back and up toward the rib cage. In everyday life, you can Stabilize the Arms when you close the trunk of your car. Simply Pressurize your Hands on the trunk door, Align the Shoulders, micro-bend your elbows, and engage your abdominals as you push it closed.
There is no way to “fix” OA in any joint. However, as its name implies, osteoarthritis is a problem of excessive inflammation—the suffix “-itis” means inflammation. When you experience a flare-up, implement the RICE technique—rest, ice, compress, and elevate—to reduce minimize inflammation.
Alternately, try taking Epsom salt and lavender oil baths. Epsom salts soaked in water release magnesium sulfate. During a bath, the magnesium sulfate is absorbed through the skin to help reduce inflammation. Lavender oil promotes the relaxation of muscles. Together, the two are a powerful tonic to aid in healing. Simply add a cup of Epsom salts and two or three drops of lavender oil to a warm (not hot) bath, and enjoy!