Arthritis affecting the joints in the hand and wrist make even the simplest tasks a painful experience.

Tips for living with hand arthritis

Hand Shopping Bag

Do simple everyday tasks like writing or turning the ignition in your car cause pain? Arthritis affecting the joints in the hand and wrist make even the simplest tasks a painful experience. 

Here are a few tips to help get you through the day and hopefully minimize discomfort with routine tasks.

There are 4 basic principles of joint protection for the hands:

Respect Pain

Abusing or over-using an arthritic joint can lead to increased pain and disability. Some days will be better than others. Limit activity levels on days that pain is increased.

Avoid prolonged grip and pinch 

  •  Prop a book to free hands from prolonged grasp  
  • Use a card rack for playing cards
  • Switch hands, positions or tasks frequently  
  • When exercising, be conscious of how long and hard you grasp weights or equipment handles. Try to use the lightest pressure possible to maintain a safe grip. For example: When walking on a treadmill, don’t over grip the bars for the full 30 min cardio session. The workout is for your heart not your hands.  
  • During high-demand activities such as needlework, writing or food prep, be sure to take brief breaks every 10-15 minutes.

Avoid tight grasp and pinch whenever possible.

Studies have shown that as little as 1kg of pinch (2.2lbs) creates 3 times the compression at the thumb IP (tip joint), nearly 6 times the compressive force at the MP of the thumb (the joint where the thumb connects to the hand) and up to 12 times the force at the CMC joint (where the thumb connects to the wrist).  

  • The larger the handle, the lower the force required to maintain grasp. Build up grips on devices such as kitchen tools, gardening, tools and sporting equipment such as golf clubs and racquets. Look for tools that are “ergonomic.” The handles may be larger or oriented slightly different designed to require less force and lower strain on joints. 
  • Use larger pens for writing or try typing. Felt pens can be less stressful. There are also a number of ergonomic pens on the market.  
  • Avoid using the handles of purses and shopping bags. Particularly the handles for plastic shopping bags place too much strain on the small finger joints.  This is compounded when holding multiple bags. 
  • Try using a dagger grasp if you are stirring or digging with a trowel for a long period as a way of alternating grasp.  
  • Use the palm of your hand or elbow for applying pressure like closing containers or plastic zip type bags.  
  • Avoid squeezing with wringing motion by wrapping a wet item around the faucet and squeezing excess water between the palms of your hands.

Use larger joints to accomplish tasks

  • Carry your purse or briefcase over your shoulder or across your body rather than in your hands.
  • Use your hip or shoulder to close heavy drawers or open heavy doors.
  • Use paper bags instead of plastic at the grocery store so you can carry the load on your forearms. Some reusable bags have shoulder straps.

These are just a few tips for living with arthritis and hopefully from reading the basic principles you will have the insight to modify tasks that are particularly bothersome to you. There are different strategies including use of heat modalities, supportive splinting and targeted gentle exercises that a certified hand therapist can recommend.

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About the Author

Lee Francella is a physical therapist and certified hand therapist. She has spent the majority of her 27-year career as a therapist following her passion: the care and treatment of patients with disorders affecting the hand and upper extremity.