10 Simple Adjustments to Relieve RA Hand Pain
Rheumatoid arthritis often leads to hand pain. Learn how to modify your activities to protect joints, get hand pain relief, and still enjoy hobbies you love.
By Karen Appold
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Many people with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, experience hand pain. If you’re one of them, getting relief should be a top priority &emdash; trying to push through the pain may only lead to more problems. To break the cycle of RA and hand pain while still doing the things you need and want to do, it's important to try activity modifications.
There are several reasons why hand pain is so common with RA, explains Debbie Amini, EdD, OTR/L, CHT, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at EastCarolinaUniversity in Greenville, N.C. The hand is made up of many small joints, and a large number of these are synovial joints, which contain the tissue most often attacked by RA. As the disease attacks the synovium, it creates swelling that enlarges joints and puts painful pressure on surrounding tissues, such as the ligaments and skin. Over time, RA destroys the smooth cartilage surfaces that keep joints nourished, protected, and moving smoothly. Eventually, the loss of cartilage can lead to painful bone-on-bone rubbing. Another reason for hand pain is because the hands contain a lot of nerve endings.
Your hands are also more susceptible to pain than other body parts because they have less support. The small joints of the hands are supported by smaller muscles than joints like the elbow or shoulder, which are supported by large muscles, says Carole Dodge, OTR, CHT, supervisor and clinical specialist at the University of Michigan Hospital and Health System in Ann Arbor. RA causes swelling of the joints and irritation of supportive tissues, leaving small joints vulnerable to damage. "When RA strikes, everyday forces begin to cause distortions and dislocations of the joints, which can lead to pain and dysfunction," Dr. Amini adds.
Despite this pain, people with RA often try to continue to function normally and don't allow their joints to rest for necessary relief. "This can lead to even more pain due to overuse of delicate tissues," Amini says. Getting hand pain relief is key to minimizing long-term damage.
The Occupational Therapist's Role
According to an analysis of numerous research studies published by the Cochrane Collaboration, there’s a lot of evidence that working with an occupational therapist when you have RA can help you use your hands for everyday tasks more efficiently and with less pain. The occupational therapist's goal is to ensure that you can participate in any activity you want while still protecting your joints and getting hand pain relief.
For starters, an occupational therapist teaches people with RA about disease self-management, Dodge says – offering instruction on joint protection techniques, how to use assistive devices, how to conserve your energy, and exercises that will help you do activities with less pain. An occupational therapist may also recommend using supportive orthotics to rest joints and decrease pain, as well as explain how to use heat and cold as part of your pain management strategy.
The occupational therapist can also show you how to modify specific activities so you can still do them. For example, if you’re a woman who enjoys knitting, an occupational therapist can provide suggestions for adaptive equipment and offer techniques that allow you to enjoy your hobby more safely.
Modifying Daily Activities: 10 Tips to Try Now
If you need hand pain relief from RA, use these suggestions from Dodge and Amini to modify activities to make them less painful:
- Build up handles on utensils and tools so that less force is needed to hold them while performing tasks. Pipe insulation is handy for enlarging handles.
- If you're unable to lift a gallon of milk with one or both hands, buy half gallons or have someone pour half into a small pitcher.
- Rather than carrying bags in your hand, place straps over your forearm or shoulder. Rolling bags alleviate the need to lift and carry them.
- Use both hands when lifting objects, and keep your forearms close to your body.
- When possible, use your palms to grasp objects rather than your fingertips. Replace standard door knobs with door levers.
- Wear rubber gloves to enhance your grip when opening jars.
- Use electric appliances when possible.
- Use your entire body to move heavy objects rather than pushing with your hand, such as when opening a door.
- Use a rolling cart to move items around the house.
- Purchase pots and pans with two handles and slide them over surfaces instead of lifting them. Silicone sheets can be placed on delicate counter surfaces to protect them from hot pots.
You may not be able to avoid hand pain entirely, but you can take steps to minimize the discomfort and maintain the use of your hands for everyday living.
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