Oh My Aching Hands! - large

Most of us don’t think twice about turning a key in a lock or opening a lid on a jar. But if you have arthritis in your fingers or thumb joints, these daily tasks can be difficult. And painful.

Age and constant use create wear and tear on your joints. The natural cushion of cartilage on the ends of bones deteriorates over time. Pain and swelling occur as bone rubs against bone. The result? Osteoarthritis. And a broken bone or other injury at the joint can accelerate the process.

Women — especially if you are past menopause — are more likely than men to develop osteoarthritis of the hands. It also tends to run in families. The middle joints, joints nearest the fingertips and joint at the base of the thumb are most often affected.

In addition to swelling and pain, you’re likely to feel stiffness and sometimes a hard, bony bump at the joint. Swelling may cause your joint to feel warm.

“Severe arthritis in the hands can seriously limit a person’s activities and enjoyment of life,” says Beth Berrettoni, MD, hand surgeon with Hand & Reconstructive Surgeons & Associates in Centerville, Ohio. “Fortunately, we have a number of ways to lessen pain and improve your ability to use your fingers and thumbs.”

That’s why it’s important to see your doctor if you suspect arthritis. A physical exam, review of your symptoms and an X-ray can confirm if you have arthritis and point the way to the best treatment.

Getting Relief

Oh My Aching Hands! - in contentArthritis treatment works to help you two ways: relieve your pain and give you the greatest movement. Start with these proven strategies:

  • Rest your hands, either by changing activities or providing support with a splint or close-fitting sleeve.
  • Apply heat to soothe joints (e.g., paraffin bath or warm compresses).
  • Ice can help as well. Apply for five to 15 minutes, several times a day.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medication, such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or something stronger prescribed by your doctor.
  • Ask your doctor about a steroid injection if pain becomes severe. This injection directly into the joint can provide pain relief for several months.

If your arthritis has progressed and is severely limiting your daily activities, you may want to discuss surgery options with a hand surgeon. Surgeries for severe arthritis include:

  • Joint fusion, which means attaching the two bones that meet at a joint together so they don’t rub against each other. The fusion eliminates pain, although you will no longer be able to bend at that joint.
  • Joint reconstruction, to replace the surface of the bones at the affected joint with a piece of tendon from your arm or wrist or with an artificial implant.

“We have made great strides in replacing joints of the hands and fingers to restore movement and comfort to people with arthritis,” says Dr. Berrettoni. “New techniques and materials have helped us to increase both strength and mobility to help our patients perform the activities they want to do.”

Full recovery from surgery takes several months. You’ll wear a cast for four to eight weeks and then participate in physical therapy exercises to restore your strength and motion. Most patients will comfortably resume normal activities.